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Nobody’s Voice: to hear what is unheard as a pressing task for poetics today

by Warwick Mules

Abstract: In the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer trust the human voice to say the truth of things. In a twisted, perverted way, the Anthropocene condemns human ‘saying’ as false and misleading while affirming the human as the only one who can say anything at all. This paradox of the human voice – a voice that is unable to tell the truth in its very capacity to tell the truth – is what besets us today. Is there a voice that can speak out of this paradox without its paradoxical claim on what is said? In this article I will work with the possibility of a poetics that speaks with nature in a poietic voice: not the human voice that speaks paradoxically, but the voice unheard in this very speaking. To attempt such a task I will invoke the work of the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who proposes a poetics of the figural from the perspective of the eye over the voice. My claim is that to arrive at a non-Anthropocentric way of poetic saying we must go by way of the eye over the voice. We do not hear what is seen; rather, in what is seen we hear. This article will focus on the saying of nature in two poems: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Rock’, and John Ryan’s ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’. While Stevens’s poem speaks with the Anthropos, unable to hear the other who cannot speak back, Ryan’s poem speaks after the Anthropos with nobody’s voice heard in the poem’s visual presentation. There is no other to speak back, only the fall into oblivion: a fall into nature where the voice is heard.

Key Words: ecopoetics, deconstruction, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Anthropocene, Wallace Stevens, John Ryan


This article[i] concerns two aspects of the Anthropocene: the name given to a new geological epoch in which human attempts to control the Earth’s forces have caused a rift in the human/nature relation, producing what eco-philosopher Jason Moore calls ‘negative-value’ in capitalist accumulation (‘Nature in its Limits’). Negative value is an ecological surplus that threatens global catastrophe and species extinction.[ii] Nature becomes negative-value when capital expansion breaches its own limits, toxifying inhabitable worlds with waste, resulting in the current crisis of climate change. This is the aspect telling us that something is wrong with the modern Anthropos – the human ‘way of being’ – in the current age of hypermodern capitalism. This is the wrong that must be put right.

The other aspect of the Anthropocene concerns the poietic voice: a voice that speaks ‘otherwise’ – within and against what is already said. Let’s take a practical example. Imagine yourself in front of a mirror: you see yourself in the mirror and say ‘that is me’, but at the same time you feel an uncanny sense that what you see is not me. There is a gap in your sensory awareness between the voice that confirms this is me and the ‘not me’ that I see in the image.[iii] This ‘not me’ speaks silently, countering the possessiveness of the voice that claims ‘this is me’. It ‘tells us’ what is seen but not heard: that things could be otherwise.

For the holocaust poet Paul Celan, the poietic voice is the voice of nature in its negated otherness where even the stones speak:

Like one speaks to the stone, like


To me from the abyss

(Radix, Matrix)

Stones speak back ‘from the abyss’ but with whose voice. They speak with Nobody’s Voice – a voice heard when we listen for what the stones are not saying.[iv] Nobody’s Voice is what we must listen for if we are to put the wrong right: if we are to repair the rift in the human/nature relation in the way it is said. In light of these issues of a wrong way and a right way of saying our relation to nature, I will set out what I see to be a problem in the institution of poetry: how poetry institutes itself as a way of saying something.

I have mentioned the word ‘saying’ a number of times, but what does it mean? To say something is to bring whatever is said into being some thing as the ‘truth’ of what is said. To say that something is, is to speak of it truly, as opposed to doxa or opinion. Saying is what is called a deixis in that it marks the act of saying in relation to the thing said, characterised by an ‘I’ or its derivative pronouns (‘we’, ‘us’). The poetic saying of nature is the act of bringing into being the things of nature through the voice of the poet, speaking as an ‘I’ in the poetic event (Mules 37). The poietic voice is the poetic voice turned against itself (the that speaks back in the mirror image), so that it releases the things of nature from being for what is said. The poietic voice is not a separate voice to the poetic voice, but the same voice speaking otherwise.

In order to show how the poietic voice speaks in a practical sense, I will look at two poems featuring plant species: a poem by the twentieth century modernist poet Wallace Stevens entitled ‘The Rock’, in which the plant species named in the poem cannot speak back, and a poem by contemporary eco-poet John Ryan, entitled ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’, where the plant species named speak with an ‘inhuman’ voice heard in the image seen. My aim here is to demonstrate the limits of the saying of these poems – their voice – in terms of a difference between what is heard and what is seen. The ear hears what the eye sees, but in which order? While Stevens’s poem speaks with the voice of the Anthropos and hence continues to claim nature in its negative-value as nature ‘for us’, Ryan’s poem speaks otherwise to the Anthropos; that is, with Nobody’s Voice heard in what is seen but not said – in the poem’s visual presentation. We do not hear what is seen; rather, in what is seen we hear. In Ryan’s poem, poietic saying is released from the Anthropos so that we can hear the voice of nature in its ecological surplus – as nature in us but not of us or for us.

To facilitate my reading I will turn to the philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard, whose work on the figural, art and aesthetics has yet to be taken up in ecopoetics. At first glance, Lyotard is a most unlikely thinker to call upon to address the problems of the voice in poetic language, as his work, most of which was published in the second half of the twentieth century, is mainly confined to art and aesthetics from a poststructuralist/postmodern perspective, a position many regard today as outdated and unable to respond to the ‘ontological turn’ in the contemporary humanities. New materialisms and the turn to cognitive and quantum physics have emerged everywhere in the humanities today, proposing a radical ontology of nature that claims to have dispensed with the need for critical reflection on the subject speaking on nature’s behalf (Coole and Frost 2-3). However, criticism of poststructuralism on these grounds is misguided, as the de-essentialising of the voice needed to establish such a ‘voiceless’ ontology had already been undertaken by various twentieth century thinkers through a  severe critique of phenomenology (Derrida, Lacan) without surrendering the reflexive power of critique. Lyotard’s own critique of these deconstructionist positions – a critique that does not reject them, but carries them further into the ontological openness of voiceless being – already anticipates and indeed fulfils the need for a shift to radical ontology in the Anthropocene, for instance with his proposal of the concept of the ‘inhuman’ (The Inhuman), a negative potential that ungrounds human reason in fundamental paradox, aporetic impasse and the differend (The Differend). Lyotard’s work retains the critical reflexivity needed to release the subject’s grip on nature, unlocking the potential of the modern Anthropos to speak otherwise, in another voice.

The shift in Lyotard’s work to a post-Anthropocentric mode of critical thinking begins in his groundbreaking book Discourse, Figure, where he opens up what he calls ‘figural space’ – a pre-subjective visual field – by reversing the order of the ear and the eye in the perception of artworks including the modernist, ‘concrete’ poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (Discourse, Figure 61). The entire thrust of Lyotard’s analysis hinges on the proposition that language (signification) contains an excess of seeing – an ‘eye lodged at its core’ (7) – that transgresses the logos of the voice – its capacity to speak the truth. Modern poetry – with its self-reflexive questioning of the ‘I’ that speaks – provides us with an exemplary case of a language that harbours a repressed perception: an eye whose seeing exceeds the voice.

By following Lyotard’s lead, we can overturn the institutionalisation of the poetic voice as an intimate saying of what the poet feels, as if all thought, all reason ended there, thereby releasing the poem’s images from the grip of what it says. We can then hear the voice in its ‘otherwise’ saying, as the poietic voice speaking from a position on the other side of the Anthropos but within the perceptual field from where the Anthropos speaks. In this way, modern poetry sets us on a path to make the wrong right; to reset the poietic voice so that it speaks for those to come after the Anthropocene.


Here is a well known definition of the Anthropocene:

The term Anthropocene suggests: (i) that the earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene and (ii) that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene, that is, humankind has become a global geological force in its own right. (Steffen et. al. 843)

What concerns me about this definition is the last phrase: ‘humankind has become a global geological force in its own right’. This suggests that the modern Anthropos has broken free from the restraints of the Holocene, and that the Anthropocene is the age of human self-overcoming taken to its limits. What is the problem here?

The problem here concerns the capacity of the Anthropos to say the truth of things. In a twisted, distorted way, the Anthropocene condemns human ‘saying’ as false and misleading (a danger to the human/nature relation), while affirming the human as the only one who can say anything at all. This paradox of the human voice – a voice that is unable to tell the truth in its very capacity to tell the truth – is what besets us today. Is there a voice that can speak out of this paradox without its paradoxical claim on what it says? The task of ecopoetics, I argue, is to find a way of speaking the truth of the human relation to nature: not with the voice that speaks paradoxically, but with the voice unheard in this very speaking. To find a way to speak like this, we need to reverse the order of the ear over the eye, so that the logos – the rationality of saying what is true – is affirmed in what is seen rather than said. Here I turn in more detail to Lyotard’s practice of textual reading. 


In Discourse, Figure, Lyotard opens up an entirely new field of inquiry in what he calls the given. What is this given?

The given is not a text, it possesses an inherent thickness, or rather a difference, which is not to be read, but rather seen; and this difference, and the immobile mobility that reveals it, are what continually fall into oblivion in the process of signification. (Discourse, Figure 3)

What Lyotard draws attention to here is the paradox of the given: what is given is also taken away – a visually opaque phantasm evanescing with dynamic potential that ‘falls into oblivion’ when we try to assign it meaning. Lyotard calls this paradoxical giving-and-taking-away a recessus – a withdrawal of the perceptual field.[v] A recessus occurs when the poem’s visual field withdraws, leaving behind its trace – an evanescing phantasm whose appearance is repressed in what is said. A recessus is not invisible, but ‘visible in its invisibility’ when we read the poem with the voice, as if it meant something for us. To make the recessus visible in its phantasmic potential we need to read against the voice; to make the visual field come to light in what is not said in what is said.

At this point I would like to show how recessus works in Wallace Stevens’s poem entitled ‘The Rock’. ‘The Rock’ is structured around a central image – an image of an unpresentable ‘thing in itself’ named the ‘rock’. In its unpresentability, the rock can only signify by what it negates. Everything in the poem is presented negatively – against the unpresentability of the rock. With this negativity in mind, let’s now turn to the poem itself, and how it begins:

It is an illusion that we were ever alive,

Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves

By our own motions in a freedom air.

Note how the first line invokes a negation: ‘it’ is not some thing. It is an illusion – a state of false seeing that arises negatively. Everything that follows in the poem is cast in negative terms.

Were not and are not. Absurd. The words spoken

Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.

The meeting at noon at the edge of the field seems like

An invention …

In such a state of negation, what can the ‘we’ – as in ‘we were ever alive’ – count on to secure life as something affirmative, something real? Only the rock in its singularity – the rock as a singular thing.

The rock is the grey particular of man’s life

The rock is the stern particular of the air

The rock becomes an empty signifier for any number of things: human life, but also for the air itself, the environment in which human life exists. Yet further on we find that the rock can also be described in terms of colours:

Turquoise the rock, at odious evening bright

With redness that sticks fast to evil dreams 

Despite all of these attempts to make the rock appear before us with poetic images, the rock must withdraw: 

Yet the rock itself must remain untouched by what we use to describe it:

It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves.

We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground

Or cure ourselves, that is equal to the cure

Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.

And yet the leaves, if they broke into bud,

If they broke into bloom, if they bore fruit,

And if we ate the incipient colorings

Of their fresh culls might be a cure of the ground.

The fiction of the leaves is an icon

Of the poem, the figuration of blessedness,

And the icon is the man … .  

The rock is a massive entity that remains impervious to life – the leaves, the buds, the fruit that sustains us. Non-human ‘plant life’ as things in themselves are barred by the presence of the rock. All that is left is the poem itself: an iconic semblance of what we cannot have. According to the poet, this is our only cure.

Not only is the rock withdrawn, it is also subject to a law: ‘you shall not adorn the rock with images’. It must remain unseen. Put simply, the law is the law of negation: for anything to be said, the saying must negate what it says. Yet by describing what he sees, the poet revokes the law. Caught in the paradox of the given in having to see what must remain unseen, he announces that ‘we’ are  sick and in need of a cure.

We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground

Or cure ourselves, that is equal to the cure

We must be cured of ‘it’ – the illusion of life announced in the first line of the poem: the negativity that rules human existence. We humans must find a cure in ourselves that is equal to it. For the poet, the cure is the poem itself: the icon of man’s negative mode of being.

Stevens’s poem resolves the paradox of the given in favour of the Anthropos whose ‘sickness’ must be cured. The things of nature invoked by the poetic voice (the leaves, the wind, the oddly perceived ‘mango’s rind’) become negative-value for the poem’s saying of the cure; they can only speak insofar as they contribute to humankind’s cure in negating whatever the rock excludes. What cannot be seen in this saying is the positivity of the things themselves in their indifference to the ‘human condition’ (think of Celan’s silent stones that speak, not for you or me, but on behalf of no body – Nobody – in particular). Here we encounter a problem that has beset modern poetry from the start: its Anthropocentricism that turns the things of nature into negative-value only. Here, the phantasm of nature – its surplus mode of appearing – is unable to speak back. Nature remains ‘dumb’ to the concerns of the Anthropos and its sickness unto death. The challenge to poetics now becomes clear: can the poet speak of nature in its ecological surplus without reducing it to negative-value? Is there a way of making the phantasm visible in its potential for renewed life? Can the phantasm speak back?

Positive negation

John Ryan has written what he calls ‘topogorgical poetry’ – poems that describe his experience of walking in the mountain gorges of the New England Tableland in eastern mainland Australia.

Topogorgical poetry is poetry that

attends to the seismic scales, perplexing prospects, pastoral inversions, deep temporalities, exacting transcorporealities, and biopolitical legacies of chasmed landscapes. (Ryan, ‘Seismic’ 102)

Ryan’s poetry captures the Deep Time reality of the more-than-human forces at work as the poet walks through the mountain forests describing what he sees. These forces are not abstract but are at work in him, resulting in the poems themselves as poetic descriptions of ‘collaborative meaning-making with the botanical world, and the embeddedness of plant agency, semiosis, sentience, and intelligence in [the] places he [passes through]’ (104). However, what is abstract is the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems – a deictic marker of the poet who speaks and walks – the one directly affected by the forces in what is seen. In Ryan’s poems, sight is privileged in the invocation of an active ‘I’ for reasons that I will now explain.

‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’ is a poem to be read and seen all at once like a visual work of art. It consists of three columns of verse set side by side as if to allow interactions across lateral connections. In the singularity of its visual presentation, the poem affirms rather than negates its images. How is this achieved? If we recall Lyotard’s ‘paradox of the given’, what is given withdraws in a recessus – a regressed perceptual field. In Stevens’s poem, the voice’s reflexivity – its capacity to ‘know that it knows’ what it says – negates the perceptual field from outside what it says. The recessus is repressed. In Ryan’s poem, the voice does something quite different: it remains on the inside of its own saying, thereby affirming what it negates. In this way, the recessus is released.

Here are the opening lines:

I turned the corner and I entered the mind

Of the beech forest. The seen was not a scene

But a psyche. The trees’ old way of thinking

Coppiced from within me. I walked inwardly

A while towards eternity.

Note how the ‘I’ here designates not a state of mind but an action: the action of turning a corner – a spatial designation of the place in which the one associated with the poetic voice acts. In designating what it does rather than thinks, the I places itself at a distance from the action. Yet it also remains as part of the event of what it describes, in the same way that a simple narration employs the past tense to describe an action as it happens. This uncomplicated way of describing an ongoing action from the perspective of the moment just past places the poetic voice – the that speaks – inside the very action it describes (the technical term for this is a para-index). The does not negate what it sees, but negates itself in seeing, releasing what it sees from the grip of the Anthropos. The poet describes this release in the following lines:

… The seen was not a scene

But a psyche. The trees’ old way of thinking

Coppiced from within me. I walked inwardly

A while towards eternity.

Here we need to be mindful of how negation is working in these lines. The first negation occurs in distinguishing between two things: what is seen and the scene itself – the ‘set-up’ of things.

… The seen was not a scene

What is seen as given negates the scene. Here, the negates itself in the ongoing act of describing the ‘scene’ described as it is passed through (in the past tense – ‘It was not a scene’), producing a gap in-between what is seen and the act of saying it (as if the poet had entered the gap in the mirror image we looked at before; in the delayed moment of recessus that leads otherwise). In this gap, the beech tree’s ancient way of thinking suddenly comes to light: a ‘psyche … coppiced from within me’. The mind of the forest is both in me and out of me – a condition entirely consistent with the poem’s topological-grammatical structure, where the I speaks interstitially, in-between the inside and the outside of the visual field. In negating itself, the moves, not back into itself in self-reflexive transcendence (as in Stevens’s poem ‘The Rock’), but ‘inwardly’ into the awaiting mind of the forest. What is seen is seen in the interstitial gap, where all thought and action happens in the relativity of space and time; a ‘spacetime’ event, when the linear time of Chronos and the nonlinear time of Aion coincide; an evental time which the poet calls ‘eternity’.

… I walked inwardly / A while towards eternity

The poem enacts a journey through the abyssal event of spacetime – the heterogeneity of all the pasts felt co-presently in an ‘eternally’ collapsing recessus of the visual field: 

My body dropped through basalt strata of

Other epochs as I rounded the elbow below

Point Lookout and crashed face-first into the

Very thought of the forest.

In the central column of the poem, the poet experiences a vision of the recessus as a heterogeneity of things, affects and actions intermingling through the transformational forces of Deep Time, as if it had created the event in a single stroke. At the heart of this vision is an image of a chainsawed tree:

… a collapsed beech,

chainsawed, is disclosing

Its clotted crimson heart

In coronary rays incised on

A cross-section of memory,

Evanescent opaque views

Over gullies made of gums

and wallabies …

This image of a mortally wounded tree oozing life through the ages of the forest’s ancient memory lies at the heart of the given, permeating the entire poem with its sacrificed blood-sap, transfigured into light and life (‘coronary rays’). This sacrificial image is not negative (unlike Stevens’ impermeable rock), but positive: it affirms the indispensability of the oikeios (the dynamic web of life), giving life under sufferance as evidence of a crime – a crime against nature of cosmic proportions.[vi] Suddenly, the paradox of the given dissolves in the poet’s vision of nature affirmed in what is seen. The poem is itself the act of seeing what the poet sees.


The aim of my analysis has been to unravel the logic of negation at work in two poems that demonstrate radically different procedures for subjectivising the poietic voice. The poietic voice is the voice unheard in poetic saying; the voice repressed in what is said. To access the poietic voice, we need to think of poetical saying in a visual field withdrawn in a recessus: an archaic topography of images negated by the act of poetic saying itself.[vii] The poietic voice is released when we see the visual field in its negated state as other to what the Anthropos calls for; other than in terms of a cure for the human condition cast out of nature’s plenitude. In the case of Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Rock’, the poietic voice remains unheard, recessed in negated nature. However, in John Ryan’s poem ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’, the unheard poietic voice becomes heard when the poet ‘turns the corner’, that is, takes a diverging path by breaking the deictic link between saying and seeing in the visual presentation of the poem itself. The poem becomes a phantasm co-created with things named, where the act of naming imparts new life in a poetic vision that includes human culpability for trauma inflicted on nature’s plenitude – its capacity to give.[viii] In this procedure, the poet unravels the paradox of the given by negating his own voice in what he sees, as a praxis of creative shaping that includes the capacity of the poet himself as part of this very poem that I am currently reading. Anthropocentrism is thwarted by turning the Anthropos against itself, effecting a creative-deconstructive event as post-Anthropocentric ecopoetics.

Finally I want to end with a suggestion: that poems be read as critical-philosophical sayings of their own limits. By limits I mean the limits imposed on us in our use of language to impart what cannot be presented. By following the gaps in the deixis between what is said and the saying itself, these limits will be exposed. What are they? They concern negation – the No that allows a Yes (Freud ‘Negation’). As users of the prosthesis we call language, humans cannot get around negation: to do so requires further negation that says Yes to the No, triggering repetition or what psychoanalysts in the Freudian tradition call drive (Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ 307–11). In poetry we have a way of transgressing this limit through poietic drive working in the gap suspended in-between the Yes and the No as open – but to what? We need to listen to the poietic voice as the Yes heard in the No: that which affirms otherwise as a chance to begin again in what is not said in the saying; a chance to speak after the Anthropos by transgressing its limits without surpassing them. This is, I propose, the task for poetics today.


[i] This article is a revised version of a keynote address to In the Making: On Poetry and Poetics, Symposium, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, 29th November 2019.

[ii] See also Cunha.

[iii] My example is, of course, derived from Lacan’s mirror phase of the infant’s entry into subjectification (Lacan 93).

[iv] For the term ‘Nobody’s Voice’, I draw from a passage in Celan’s essay ‘Conversation in the Mountains’, where Jewish cousins meet up with one another in the mountains, a place where the stones (markers of the Holocaust) ‘do not talk, they speak, and who they speak to does not talk to anyone, cousin, he speaks because nobody hears him, nobody and Nobody, and then he says, himself, not his mouth or his tongue, he, and only he, says: Do you hear me?’ (Celan 151). Nobody’s voice is the silence that demands to be heeded: the voice of the Other ‘in me’. Speaking is the saying of this demand on me to bear witness to a truth that must be believed (Derrida, Sovereignties in Question 75), which belongs to a different order of being to the communicative act of talking. Nobody’s voice is my voice when I speak otherwise, on behalf of nobody in particular: an address that must remain radically open for future ‘sayings’.

[v] In the saying, a recessus negates the voice ‘in the visible of a subject-less gaze, the object of nobody’s eye’ (Lyotard, Discourse, Figure 55).

[vi] For oikeios see Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

[vii] Archaism is the past effective in the present. See John Sallis’s Elemental Discourses (152).

[viii] For the impartibility of naming see Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man’ (63-74). See also Samuel Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities (44-48).

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter. ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man.’ Trans. Edmind Jephcott. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael Q. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. 62–74.

Celan, Paul. Selections. Ed. Pierre Joris. Berkeley: University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. ‘Introducing New Materialisms.’ New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. 1–43.

Cunha, Daniel. ‘The Anthropocene Fetish.’ Mediations 28.2 (2015): 65–77.

Derrida, Jacques. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. New York: Fordham University Press. 2005.

—. Voice and Phenomenology: Introduction to the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Phenomenology. Trans. Leonard Lawlor. Evanston: Northwest University Press, 2011.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’. Trans. James Strachey. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984. 275–338.

—. ‘Negation’. Trans. James Strachey. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984. 437–42.

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

—. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Richard Bowlby. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.

—. Discourse, Figure. Trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Moore, Jason. ‘Nature in the Limits to Capital (and Vice versa)’. Radical Philosophy 193 (2015): 9–19.

—. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso, 2015.

Mules, Warwick. With Nature: Nature Philosophy as Poetics through Schelling, Heidegger, Benjamin and Nancy. Bristol: Intellect, 2014.

Ryan, John. ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest.’ 2019. Unpublished poem.

—. ‘Seismic, or Topogorgical, Poetry.’ Geopoetics in Practice. Ed. Eric Magrane, Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw and Craig Santos Perez. London: Routledge, 2020. 101–16.

Sallis, John. Elemental Discourses: the Collected Writings of John Sallis. Volume 11/4. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

Steffen, Will, et. al. ‘The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2011. 842–67.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1972.

Weber, Samuel Weber. Benjamin’s –abilities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2008.

Published: March 2020
Warwick Mules

is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University, Australia. He is the author of With Nature: Nature Philosophy as Poetics through Schelling, Heidegger, Benjamin and Nancy (Intellect 2014).


Life of a Sundew or Sundew of a Life

by Pantea Armanfar

What you seek is seeking you      or

You are what you are seeking

(Mevlana 1207-1273)

= it, they, he, she, آن

In telling ’s story, in demonstrating ’s “world-making”[i] (Tsing 24), in thinking in ’s mind, I should ask: who is ? or How does think? or What does think about? This piece of text explores these questions by recording and rephrasing these questions in the context of itself. Could I find ? Did I touch ? Did I take care of ? No. Thereby, the questions might not necessarily lead to answers, but to further questions or bafflements that aim at unpicking the information backed up by humans’ frame of evidence and ways with which • is studied, recorded, used and understood. Nevertheless, these questions seek new ways of associating, communicating, conversing, observing, noticing, thinking, listening and living. In this sense, listening is vital. Listening refers to a series of cognitive and psychological processes in humans through which a certain range of frequencies is perceived. The human mind’s inability to record all the information on human’s memory interprets those frequencies as rhythm and melodies, shifting the human’s focus on assemblages of frequencies rather than segmented pieces of information (Call). On top of that, ‘cultural history and experience’ of individuals impact the interpretation, understanding and attending (Oliveros xxiii). In the ‘polyphonic listening’ we seek to ‘make assemblages’ of ’s ‘ways of being’ (Tsing 157) and in seeking so we listen to the rhythm by which inhabits, flourishes, kills and disappears. Last but not least, this text in no way tries to ignore the human. The human is the channel through which •’s story is narrated. The human is neither the conductor nor the observer but is in a dynamic relation with the act of seeking . The human uses the English language as a tool to write with, and occasionally thinks in the Persian language. The human expands her mind to think in both a second language and in a second world of •. Moreover, the human is the audience who assesses this process. Now I embark.

• • •

Finding in my habitat has been difficult. ’s absence expresses itself through my displaced mind seeking . This is the world in which I world myself and • together. The absence present in displacement and migration worlds us together.[ii] Absence of my cats, absence of my home, absence of my rice, absence of my shapes of door, absence of my mind expressing in a world of familiar physical and imaginative bodies. Presence of my imagination of a new home, presence of another creature as my mate whom I love, presence of a new sky, new blue, new shapes of doors, new ways of speaking. • and I become a new way of listening and narrating.

Where are you? I was told I could probably find • around the mosses I spent time in: lands of water or oceans of solid organic matter layered on top of one another throughout thousands of years (Mitsch and Gosselink).[iii] I was told I could find you in damp and sunny places, this is neither a good season nor a good temperature as sun is scarce here now. • is sleeping in time and yet I am seeking in a library.  finds me in here, the similarity of shapes and colors in my breakfast:

Photo by Pantea Armanfar.

Photo by Pantea Armanfar.

Figure 1-2: Breakfast on 23rd March 2019, Main Library, George Square, Edinburgh

A sundew or drosera specimen growing in Darwin’s greenhouse, Down House, photo by Pam Fray.

Figure 3: Drosera rotundifolia

I find  in the main library:

Figure 4: Cipher Manuscript (Voynich Manuscript)

The ‘bubble world’[iv] (Tsing 156) of , called by humans, is Drosera or Sundew. I like Sundew more: ‘The Dewe of the Sonne’ (‘Sundews’). An expression used to connect dew[v] with the sun[vi]. They used me, they drew me, they loved me[vii] (Enquist) and I became present. The presence of the others made me reach my sensors of attention into the air, and the limitations of my attention glitter in your eyes beneath the sun (Darwin 1-14).

Breathing sunlight made finding  very unlikely at the human time-scale:  is present in spring, summer or all seasons in other places in the world (Butts et al. 271). She seems worried as she can’t find me, but I become present as she seeks me in the main library, drawn in the 15th century of their time-scale, written in a language they should decode. Their ears blind for meaning.[viii]

creates music in the air, if you draw you would know and you would have listened, as Darwin did (Fig. 5). • is an expression of affair and is present when someone makes love with . • hugs nearly 300 species of sphagnum moss to drink water (Allaby). • makes sticky love with 10 million or 5 million or 1,170,000 species of insects (Ødegaard; Thanukos) to make up for the absence of soil. • takes •’s time to kill, eat and digest as these processes happen gradually and simultaneously (Darwin). Then  connects to the sun to flourish.[ix] • is present in about 7850 scholarly articles (‘Author De-Identified’). ‘s sticky and glittering tentacles are like frequencies laid out in time and space creating different musical patterns in association with sunlight, sphagnum moss, passing creatures as bodies of food and a bigger environment.  is the landscape.

Figure 5: Darwin’s sketch of sundew

Who is ? • does not contemplate but attends. • is indefinable for the same reasons • is distinctive (Mitsch and Gosselink 26-21). is complex yet predictable (Mitsch and Gosselink 258).  is individual yet integrated.[x] lives in a biodiverse solitude (Mitsch and Gosselink 258).  is poetic and dances with air, nutrients and words (Cambridge; Grigson; Pavlovič). knows the land and time  has not been to.[xi] has a memory of a millennium (Mitsch and Gosselink 3). is an emergence of a specificity that fits into no logic but love perhaps (Cambridge 22).  creates hybrids of horror and justice.[xii]  creates hybrids of murder and love. is modification of processes of symbiosis or whatever form of life you like to call it. lives in a continuum of communities (Mitsch and Gosselink 232) that are both mature and young (Mitsch and Gosselink 231).  is self-sustained and cannot be forced to emerge into presence.[xiii]

Do humans call  a plant? But  is unlike many other plants.  is rare (Feldman 511). is a rare expression of a land that lacks the living forms of phosphorus and nitrogen and does not need soil to grow (Pavlovic et al.).  is confusing and crosses categories[xiv] (Enquist; Feldman; Potts et al.). is an expression of exception and transition. is a transition of transitions and can’t be explained.  lives neither in water nor land but in both.[xv] is a process of cohabitations.  is an expression of diversity of the environment it inhabits.  is an expression of the land that does not mix its elements: Water and soil separate yet together. Soils, branches, sphagnum moss, roots, music, patterns, they never dissolve with each other, but they come together, share their differences of minerals and they become one complex of body-time.  is them. is the expression of others.  gives back the care it receives.  is an expression of the land’s impermanence and becomes absent in absence of presence.[xvi]  disappears to create silence for the land. is death and life at the same time.  is contradictory as love is.[xvii] Affair is killing and killing is pollination.[xviii] Reason diminishes or shines visible through connectivity.

is worried because can’t see us, yet we are here, in the darkness, in the absence of all that  misses: cats, rice, ambiguity of ‘s language. I am waiting for to love back. our world is the story of love in ‘s life. ‘s love is a mystery: they fight, they eat, they sleep, and they laugh. ‘s is there all the time, helping, smiling, hiding and yet never knows what really thinks. ‘s capacity for an affair with creates a space for territory and murder. The tentacles of our liveability glitter through our differences. A free ticket to the impossible journey to ‘be’ something else, chooses to perceive the world in ‘s eyes. Now,  is reminded of how I think. I don’t think. I do.[xix]

is trying to dedicate all the neurons in ‘s brain to think with the ‘ ••••’ or ‘vegetal mind’ (Gagliano e1288333-2), what skills do we have? We smell spring or life. We sense silent movements in the air. We decide to appear, to move and die with grace of life. We drink waste and water.[xx] We connect to many but cannot imagine . does not imagine self reaches into the air for life. reaches me as I imagine .  reaches its associations with living organisms: sphagnum moss brings healthy water and records the life of carbon. Insects bring sun, generation and food. The cohabited entanglements help photosynthesis take place:  breathes and has affairs with the environment as not only is  a part of s environment, but  gathers the environment together.

becomes present in the process of thinking about  and become present in ‘s physical absence. becomes present in my response to reaching .  is ‘آن’ and thinks as ‘آن’ . ‘آن’ stands for the Persian article for ‘he/she/it/them/you’. As Mevlana puts it ‘هر آنچه در جستن آنی آنی’ : ‘what you seek is seeking you’ or ‘you are what you are seeking’ or ‘whatever “آن”  you are seeking to be, you are “آن”’.  reaches and lives off of my anecdotal memories and languages. ‘s livability is dependent not on ‘s knowledge of , but on the diversity of ways in which can think of or possibly live . In this sense, unlearns, unseeks, undoes,  stops knowing.

Time is vast for  yet so limited. Time is the process of growth and aging, water and land; the process of regeneration and decaying;[xxi] the process of happenings and silence.[xxii] Time is the process of interaction through which  is urged to be.[xxiii] Time is in between life and death because is an expression of transition.  lives inside a record of accumulated time, land transiting to ocean or ice transiting to land. is absent without the expression of others and flourishes to grow with the expressions of others.  is impermanence and is thinking impermanently.

• •s  as ‘worlds world worlds’ (Haraway).


[i] See ‘Art of Noticing’ (Tsing 17-25). Tsing suggests thinking through precarity as opposed to the concept of progress which is the dominant way of thinking and living. She suggests in this precarity there are ‘workable living arrangements’ and refers to this livelihood as ‘world-making’. World-making projects might be or not be part of progress, but they overlap, associate, encounter, and create ‘patterns of unintentional coordination’ or ‘assemblages’ (Tsing 22-23). Her main philosophy is focused on noticing such patterns, from which the political economy as well as environmental studies could be revitalised. There are some connections here with Deep Listening conceptualised by Pauline Oliveros as a practice for composition and meditation which expand one’s consciousness to include the ‘whole space/time continuum of sound’ and focus on perceiving details and complexities including different assemblages simultaneously (Oliveros xxiii, 13).

[ii] In work of Head et al. human-plant relations are investigated in terms of ‘distinctive materialities, moving independent of humans, sensing and communicating and taking shape as flexible bodies’ (399).

[iii] Wetlands are remains of the ‘swampy environments of the Carboniferous period’ (Mitsch and Gosselink 3) from millions of years ago that have given rise to fossil fuels. See Wetlands (Mitsch and Gosselink 4-15) for a discussion of the history of human-wetland relations over thousands of years.

[iv] Bubble world refers to Tsing’s interpretation of Umwelt, an idea demonstrated by Jakob von Uexküll for the first time. Uexküll states that every species perceives the environment in its unique way defined as one’s Umwelt. Tsing takes this further with the idea of ‘world-making’ and mentions the entanglements within which every species comes to be, thus concluding that Umwelt as ‘bubble-world’ is not enough to ‘immerse in webs of coordination’. She suggests a new approach to the ‘gathering of ways of beings’ to illustrate cross-species relationships (Tsing 155-156). She states that ‘assemblages are open-ended gatherings’ and that ‘ways of being are emergent effects of encounters’ (Tsing 23).

[v] ‘dew is a poetical or emotional property’ (Grigson 22).

[vi] There is a strong opposition here that interprets love as the emergence of two polarities. In classical mythology, dew was the moon’s daughter and symbolised the virginity and femininity that were destroyed by the sun’s masculinity. Sundew is the most exceptional kind of dew as it never dries out. Sundew grows and feeds by the use of its dews which represent both killing and flourishing (Grigson 22).

[vii] Darwin writes ‘I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world’ (Enquist).

[viii] Gagliano and Grimonprez (145-50) question language as the key feature of human being and give a history of language that tries to re-imagine language in terms of ‘interactions among organisms’ suggesting a ‘cross-cultural’ dialogue: ‘language is not a fixed property of that organism (e.g., a specific chemical compound) but rather a truly ecological, dynamic process of relationships by which meaning emerges to shape the production of behaviors that, in turn, shape new interactions for new meaning to emerge’ (Gagliano and Grimonprez 150). The Voynich manuscript mentioned is an ironic example of this as the meaning and the language used for it have remained a mystery for years (Newitz).

[ix] Increased photosynthesis of sundews after digesting prey has been discussed by Pavlovič et al.

[x] See Gagliano and Trewavas for the idea of a quantitative definition of consciousness.

[xi] Sundews grow in landscapes that have been sites of migration for many birds. As mentioned, wetlands also carry a rich history of carbon from millions of years ago (Mitsch and Gosselink 3-4).

[xii] ‘The man-turned-plant swamp thing is a monster living in sinister wetlands, though he is a hero as he fights injustice and even toxic pollution’ (Mitsch and Gosselink 17).

[xiii] Wetlands are self-sustaining habitats. Mitsch and Gosselink discuss the properties of a self-sustaining ecosystem including its inhabitants; however some restoration approaches are following the ‘designer wetland’ model, which is less sustainable (235).

[xiv] There is a myriad of controversies around definitions of both sundew and its habitat, resulting in confusion in classification, management and ways of studying. See Mitsch and Gosselink (19-41, esp. 31); also Feldman; Potts et al.; Enquist.

[xv] ‘Wetlands have been described as a halfway world between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, […] continuous gradient between uplands and open water’, without sharp boundaries, ‘transition zones, ecological interfaces and ecotones’ (Mitsch and Gosselink 18, 32).

[xvi] ‘In one’s absence you find a past/future/possible presence in which there is imagination, hope, and wisdom of a lived or to-be-lived life. Absence creates desire. Desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore‘ (Tuck 417).

[xvii] See footnote (vi) – the opposition of sun and moon is described as a love story.

[xviii] There are some controversies about how sundews kill some insects whilst attracting others for pollination (Potts and Krupa).

[xix] See Gagliano and Trewavas for the idea of plants’ consciousness. Gagliano uses theories of cognitive science that understand perception as a form of action to illustrate plants’ agency and their power to move, inhabit, decide and invade. See also Head et al.

[xx] Wetlands are considered ‘the kidneys of the landscapes because they function as the downstream receivers of water and waste from both natural and human sources’ (Mitsch and Gosselink 4).

[xxi] Refer to Mitsch and Gosselink (231, 232, 27, 93) for transitional features of wetland environments in terms of both time and materiality.

[xxii] ‘If, however, plants are considered within their own lifetimes and scales, their responses become active (in sometimes quite sophisticated ways) rather than passive’ (Head et al. 404).

[xxiii] See Foster and Kreitzman and Gardner et al. on how plants perceive time and exhibit circadian rhythms.



Allaby, Michael. A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2006 (Oxford Reference Online) accessed 24 March 2019, DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780198608912.001.0001.

Cambridge, Gerry. ‘Nothing but heather!’: Scottish Nature in Poems, Photographs and Prose, Edinburgh, Luath Press Ltd., 2000.

Darwin, Charles. Insectivorous Plants, place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1875.

Foster, Russell, and Kreitzman, Leon. Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks That Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing, London, Profile Books, 2004.

Grigson, Geoffrey. A Herbal of All Sorts, London, Phoenix House, 1959.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses,  Oregon State University Press, 2014.

Mitsch, William J, and Gosselink, James G. Wetlands, 4th edn, Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007

Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, New York, iUniverse Inc., 2005.

Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015.


Ødegaard, Frode. ‘How Many Species of Arthropods? Erwin’s Estimate Revised’, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, vol. 71, no. 4, 2000, pp.583–597. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1111/j.1095-8312.2000.tb01279.x.

Butts, Carter T. et al. ‘Sequence Comparison, Molecular Modeling, and Network Analysis Predict Structural Diversity in Cysteine Proteases from the Cape Sundew, Drosera Capensis‘. Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, vol 14, 2016, pp. 271-282. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.csbj.2016.05.003.

Call, Mary Emily. ‘Auditory Short-Term Memory, Listening Comprehension, and the Input Hypothesis’. TESOL Quarterly, vol 19, no. 4, 1985, p. 765. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3586675.

Feldman, Lewis J. ‘Insectivorous Plants’,  Encyclopedia of Insects. Elsevier Inc., 2009, pp. 511–514.

Gagliano, Monica, and Mavra Grimonprez. ‘Breaking the Silence—Language and the Making of Meaning in Plants’. Ecopsychology, vol 7, no. 3, 2015, pp. 145-152. Mary Ann Liebert Inc, doi:10.1089/eco.2015.0023.

Gagliano, Monica. ‘The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable’. Communicative & Integrative Biology, vol 10, no. 2, 2017, p. e1288333. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/19420889.2017.1288333.

Gardner, Michael J. et al. ‘How Plants Tell the Time’. Biochemical Journal, vol 397, no. 1, 2006, pp. 15-24. Portland Press Ltd., doi:10.1042/bj20060484.

Head, Lesley et al. ‘The Distinctive Capacities of Plants: Re-Thinking Difference via Invasive Species’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 399-413. Wiley, doi:10.1111/tran.12077.

Pavlovič, Andrej et al. ‘A Carnivorous Sundew Plant Prefers Protein over Chitin as a Source of Nitrogen from Its Traps’. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, vol 104, 2016, pp. 11-16. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.plaphy.2016.03.008.

Potts, Leslie, and James J. Krupa. ‘Does the Dwarf Sundew (Drosera Brevifolia) Attract Prey?’. The American Midland Naturalist, vol 175, no. 2, 2016, pp. 233-241. University of Notre Dame, doi:10.1674/0003-0031-175.2.233.

Trewavas, Anthony. ‘Green Plants as Intelligent Organisms’. Trends in Plant Science, vol 10, no. 9, 2005, pp. 413-419. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2005.07.005.

Tuck, Eve. ‘Suspending Damage: A Letter To Communities’. Harvard Educational Review, vol 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 409-428. Harvard Education Publishing Group, doi:10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15.

Von Uexküll, Jakob. ‘A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds’. Semiotica, vol 89, no. 4, 1992. Walter De Gruyter Gmbh, doi:10.1515/semi.1992.89.4.319.


‘Author De-Identified’. Google Scholar Articles, 2019, . Accessed 24 Mar 2019.

Enquist, Star. ‘Charles Darwin’s Love Affair: The Sundew To His Moondew‘. The Recovery Discovery Blog 2019. Accessed 19 May 2019.

Newitz, Annalee. ‘The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has Finally Been Decoded [UPDATED]‘. Ars Technica, 2019, . Accessed 24 Mar 2019.

Sundews‘. Carnivorous Plant Resource, 2019. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

Thanukos, Anna. ‘The Arthropod Story‘. Understanding Evolution, 2019. Accessed 24 Mar 2019.


‘Drosera Rotundifolia’ is reproduced under a creative commons licence. Image by Pam Fray from wikimedia commons.

Cipher manuscript (Voynich manuscript). General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Used with permission.

Darwin’s sketch of a sundew comes from Darwin, Insectivorous Plants (1875). Public domain.


Haraway, Donna. ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying With The Trouble‘. Anthropocence: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Open Transcripts, 2014. Accessed 24 Mar 2019.


This creative non-fiction was initially written for a course on Environmental Humanities run by Michelle Bastian at the University of Edinburgh. The material explored there helped and inspired this essay to be developed.

Published: March 2020
Pantea Armanfar

is an artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands.


Wild Yam Dreaming: The Phytopoetics of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

by John Charles Ryan

Abstract: Anmatyerre elder and artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910–1996) of the Utopia community, Northern Territory, Australia, featured the growth patterns of the pencil yam (Vigna lanceolata) prominently in works such as Untitled (Yam) (1981), Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989) and Yam Dreaming (1996) as well as a number of black-and-white renderings. Through the yam-art of Kngwarreye, this article considers human-vegetal entanglements in Aboriginal Australian societies. Integral to appreciating Kngwarreye’s paintings, the plant-poiesis-people conjunction calls prominence to ancestral—or Dreaming—knowledge of yams not only as providores of material sustenance but also as agential beings-in-themselves who culture humankind across space and time.

Keywords: Aboriginal Australian art, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, human-vegetal relations, intermediation, wild yam


I first became aware of Aboriginal Australians’ cultivation of wild yams through archaeologist Sylvia Hallam’s classic Fire and Hearth, published in 1975. Interested in the histories of human-plant relations in the Southwest region of Western Australia, I learned that Noongar subsistence in the botanically-rich kwongan heathlands south of Geraldton, WA, centred on root crops and, in particular, wild yam (Dioscorea hastifolia). In the late 1830s, for instance, British writer-explorer George Grey characterised wild yam, or warren, as ‘a favourite article of food’ among Noongar people (12). Images of yams permeated my imagination—of convoluted roots, each distinct in shape and size from the others; of warren grounds where people would convene seasonally for ceremonies, festivals and feasts; of cultivators bending downward to extract knobby, bulbous figures from the earth; and of sacred land-plant-people interactions originating in Noongar cosmology. Years later, while reading Gaagudju Elder Bill Neidjie’s poignant Story About Feeling, a similar sensation overcame me. I could feel the ancestral respect Gaagudju people have for plants and their habitats in lines such as ‘because this earth, this ground / this piece of ground e grow you’ (Neidjie 30). Wanting to know more about Aboriginal understandings of wild yams, I came across the mesmerising paintings of Elder Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

Created in 1995, Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) is a large-scale monochrome rendering of human-vegetal entanglement. Measuring three-by-eight metres, the monumental artwork consists of thin interwoven white lines painted over the course of two days as the artist sat cross-legged on, and beside, the canvas (National Gallery of Victoria). The sinuous composition is mimetic of the subterranean growth habit of anooralya, the pencil yam or Maloga bean (Vigna lanceolata), a culturally and spiritually resonant plant for the Anmatyerre of the Northern Territory (Isaacs 15–16). Also known by the names arlatyety, arleyteye and anwerlarr, the yam is linked ancestrally to Alhalkere, Utopia Station, the soakage (or wetland area) where the artist lived and worked. The pronounced rhythmic alternation of the piece—from elongated curves and abrupt twists to dense knots, convoluted junctions, and zones of parallel lineation—traces the emergence of the edible tubers within fissures that open in the dry earth in synchrony with the yam’s ripening. At the same time, the painting’s emphasis on interconnected lines rather than the dot patterns associated prominently with, for instance, the Papunya artists of the 1970s and ’80s underscores the significance of awelye, the striped body paintings worn by Anmatyerre women during ceremonies (Bardon and Bardon). While denoting the paintings, the term awelye in the Anmatyerre language also, more broadly, signifies dialogical interrelations between humans, other beings, land, and the spirit world (McLean 26). (Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty can be viewed here).

Resisting singular interpretation and vast in its temporal reach, Big Yam Dreaming presents a visual poetics of the complex imbrications between people, plants and place in Aboriginal societies (Pascoe 13–67). Throughout her brief artistic career, Kngwarreye featured the species in paintings such as Untitled (Yam) (1981), Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989), and Yam Dreaming (1996) as well as a number of black-and-white works. Through a focus on the evolution of Kngwarreye’s yam paintings created between 1981 and 1996—from her first colorful batik to her final monochrome abstractions—this article considers human-vegetal entanglement vis-à-vis the traditional plant ontologies of the Central Desert Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. More than a two-dimensional graphic representation of the biocultural convergence between plant life and humankind, Kngwarreye’s work partakes in—becomes a living substrate within—the deep Anmatyerre mesh of plant-kin and Country. More precisely, Kngwarreye’s multi-dimensional imagining of the yam marks a shift away from vegetal representation (in which visual language constructs a botanical object in the world and thus risks reinscribing human-plant binarisms) toward intermediation (in which language proffers a living medium for dialogue between human and more-than-human subjects). Accordingly, her paintings index the material, spatial and temporal articulations specific to yams—and to those who procure and protect them—across seasons and within the constraints of desert habitats. Integral to appreciating Kngwarreye’s paintings, the plant-poiesis-people conjunction calls attention to prominent ancestral—or Dreaming—knowledge of yams not only as providores of physical sustenance but also as agents culturing the human across space and time.

A phytographical perspective on Kngwarreye’s work discloses her filiation with anooralya and other wild yam, or potato, species. Here, the term phytography characterises an approach to apprehending human and vegetal lives that attempts to reveal—or, at least, refuses to obfuscate—the inextricable entanglement of both (Ryan). In brief, phytography examines plant-non-plant biographies through a conception of poiesis as shared making, collective bringing-forth and multispecies becoming. In this context, Kngwarreye was born in 1910 at Alhalkere (Alalgura) soakage near the Utopia (Uturupa) community in Anmatyerre Country, approximately three-hundred-and-fifty kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. Utopia straddles the transition zone between the Anmatyerre (Anmatjirra) and Alyawarra (Iliaura) language groups. Lying in a dry creek bed between sand hills, Alhalkere is buffered from pastoral development by virtue of its designation as traditional Anmatyerre Country via the Utopia Land Claim of 1978 (Toohey). As a young girl digging for yams at her family’s soakage, Emily first encountered a whitefella—a policeman on horseback following the creek bed with a second horse carrying an Aboriginal man in chains (Brody 76). Before turning to art in her late 70s, she also worked as a cameleer—a role usually reserved for men, which enabled her to impart physical strength and boldness to her strokes (Neale, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’). Her memories of working the land show that yams and other plant species figured into her identity as their beingness interlaced with hers. To be certain, Kngwarreye’s middle name ‘Kame’ denotes the seed of V. lanceolata and, therefore, encodes her Yam Dreaming—the intergenerational stories of the pencil yam’s genesis that, as cultural custodian, she was entitled to narrate through her work (Holt 200). Up to her death in 1996 at the age of 86, the anooralya of Alhalkere remained Emily’s principal story. Through her concerted attention to the wild yam, Kngwarreye came to embody the plant’s Altyerre, the creation or Dreaming being connected to the species.

For Anmatyerre and Alyawarra people, anooralya and anatye (bush yam, Ipomoea costata) are the two primary edible tubers (Isaacs 15). Populating watercourses and swamps throughout Australia, anooralya is a perennial legume with a deep taproot, slender tubers and yellow flowers (Lawn and Holland). The juicy, though bland-tasting, tubers have served a prominent role as a staple food in the traditional economies of the Aboriginal people of the Central Desert. Available throughout most of the year, the storage organs—comparable to potatoes—are either eaten raw or cooked in hot ashes or sand. Resembling small white peanuts, the buried seed pods, when available, are also consumed. About one month after the end of heavy downpours, the plant’s aerial portions die back, signaling that the starchy tubers have ripened below. Harvesting the nutritive underground parts, however, requires intimate knowledge of its habitat as well as skill in recognising the desiccated leaves and stems (Latz 296–97). What’s more, a very rare yam known as antjulkinah (giant sweet potato, or Ipomoea polpha subsp. latzii) is endemic to Anmatyerre country. Similar to I. costata but with broader leaves, the highly drought-tolerant species bears large purple flowers and stems that sprawl across the ground. Averaging about two kilograms—but occasionally growing as large as a human head—the chestnut-like tubers are ingested in their raw form or after roasting (Crase et al.). According to ethnobotanist Peter Latz, antjulkinah is the most prized yam among the Anmatyerre who locate the tubers by listening attentively for hollow reverberations made by striking the earth with digging sticks (Latz 217).

To facilitate the emergence of antjulkinah, Anmatyerre people perform special songs and dances as part of ‘increase’ ceremonies (Soos and Latz). Among Aboriginal people across Australia, the term Country—often capitalised—comprises ancestral homelands, totemic systems and longstanding vegetal-cultural relations. As a living being entreating reciprocal obligations, Country is a place of belonging, where Dreaming narratives—such as those summoned in and by Kngwarreye’s yam paintings—centralise the activities of ancestral entities manifested in plants, animals, rocks, fire, stars and other phenomena. The expressions ‘singing country’ and ‘singing up country’ denote in situ, or land-based, recitations of song poetry. In reference to research conducted with Yanyuwa communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory, linguist John Bradley explains that the act of ‘singing up’ proffers a vital means of sustaining country, strengthening kinship ties, replenishing species and encouraging the land’s productivity over the seasons (Bradley with Yanyuwa families). Moreover, in The Australian Aborigines, first published in 1938, anthropologist Peter Elkin contended astutely that the ritual of increase evident throughout the island continent does not constitute ‘an attempt to control nature by magical means, but is a method of expressing [human] needs, especially [the] need that the normal order of nature should be maintained; it is a way of co-operating with nature at just those seasons when the increase of particular species or the rain should occur’ (195). Elkin further elaborated that the cooperative natural-cultural ritualistic system fulfils economic, social, psychological and spiritual functions.*

Approached from the perspectives of vegetal totemism and care for Country, Kngwarreye’s art can be understood as a human-plant enactment of singing up the Alhalkere pencil yam. Consequently, her paintings are not simply two-dimensional graphic representations of a culturally reverberative species; to the contrary, her renderings actively mediate human, vegetal and metaphysical domains. The perspective I am adopting here—one predicated on the interwoven agencies of flora and art—situates Kngwarreye’s work within a Dreaming ecology of Central Desert people that recognises plants as percipient kin. In this regard, Alyawarra ‘increase’ songs encourage yams to generate the miasmic pathways, as expressed in the following verse and analogously conveyed through Kngwarreye’s paintings:

aghiltjaya nantiyirrima ampirrkima

Let the cracks open and become jagged, lest there be no source of food.

(Moyle and Morton 74)

Whereas some Alyawarra invocations communicate traditional biocultural knowledge concerning the harvesting of yams, others celebrate—in gustatory fashion—the nourishment afforded by the rhizomatous plants as a staple crop in the Central Desert landscape:

kurranpiyma anpiymana yakwiliranga

Yams growing in small gullies and fissures climb up the trunks of nearby trees during the wet season;

(Moyle and Morton 108)

kwularnya awarrulpa intapiyta kwularnaya

Pieces of bark are used to dig up the young tubers;

(Moyle and Morton 107)

walupalu pakiytjurtu waralara pakiytjurtu

There is moisture, juice in the flesh of the yam.

(Moyle and Morton 117)

Such song-poems address Country directly as a dialogical subject as a method of ensuring the appearance of yams in cracks in the earth while also imparting practical information about the seasonal habits of the plant along with the most effective techniques of procuring it.

Kngwarreye’s art coalesces experiential, intergenerational and biocultural knowledge of the pencil yam’s intricate poiesis—its development of roots, formation of tubers, bursting open of seed pods, shrivelling of leaves, withering of stems, emergence in cracks in the ground and other phases in the life cycle of the species within its ecological milieu. In particular, Kngwarreye’s early paintings from the 1980s attend to the poietic articulations of the yam vis-à-vis the tracks of faunal wildlife—typically kangaroos and emus—feeding on its seeds and flowers. Her work thus presents what can be termed a hetero-temporalised consciousness of vegetal life synchronised to the metamorphosis of the yam across space and time. By ‘hetero-temporalised’, I mean the capacity to inhabit multiple times, moments or occasions at once. This term refers to the ability of plants to remain coordinated wholes despite their different parts (seeds, buds, flowers, stems, roots) undergoing various stages of development. Some parts of a plant may be dying while others are coming into being; some parts can be nibbled or pruned to allow others to flourish. This is plant hetero-temporality: the manifestation of times’ passage in the body of the plant.

From this perspective, Kngwarreye’s art functions within the field of différance defined by Derrida as ‘the systematic game of differences, or traces of differences, of spacing by which the elements enter into relation with one another’ (25). Michael Marder regards plant-time as hetero-temporal. For Marder, plants ‘spatially express time, illustrating the deconstructive temporalization of space and spatialization of time’ (96). The plant represents time’s passage as a unity of ‘multiple temporalities of growth—some of its parts sprouting faster, others slower, still others decaying and rotting’ (Marder 104). Marder describes this relation between plant-time and plant-space in terms of différance: ‘[…] vegetal temporality, untranslatable into the intervals of duration familiar to human consciousness, dissolves into vegetal spatiality’ (104). Along these lines, Kngwarreye’s work makes perceptible the elusive ‘pulsations’ of yam-time that otherwise might remain concealed (Marder 103). Her paintings powerfully counter the homogenising temporal order imposed on Aboriginal people and their plant-kin networks by Australian settler society since the late-eighteenth century (Donaldson).

From the standpoint of human-vegetal entanglement, Kngwarreye’s yam paintings disclose the biocultural role of her art within an Anmatyerre spiritual ecology. Critical preoccupation, however, with the position of her work vis-à-vis global modernist trends tends to occlude the nuanced botanical, topographical, corporeal and mnemonic particularities of her Dreaming. Engrossed in the representational dimensions of her work, the dominant critical perspective risks reducing plant life to a motif or trope, disregarding what I have outlined previously in this article as the intermediary function of yam-art in an Aboriginal context. To this effect, Kngwarreye has been characterised by critics narrowly as an ‘accidental modernist’ (Green) and ‘impossible modernist’ (Neale, ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’; Tatehata)—her work typecast as modern though ‘oblivious to Western modernism’ (McLean 23) and, even, analogous to the abstract expressionism of American painter Jackson Pollock. As a case in point, curator Akira Tatehata elevates Kngwarreye as one of the most significant abstract painters of the twentieth century. While Tatehata acknowledges explicitly that dislocating Kngwarreye’s work from its ecological context inscribes ‘another form of cultural colonialism’ (31), he nevertheless unremittingly pursues the modernist comparison. His essay asserts that ‘Emily’s works have a strong relation to modernist painterly spaces’ and that, unvaryingly, she can be best understood as ‘an impossible modernist’ (35). Critic Ian McLean, furthermore, approaches Kngwarreye’s art as ‘the consummation of a long post-contact Aboriginal history’ in order to legitimise its overarching resonance with Western modernism (23). From McLean’s point of view, ‘Aboriginal modernism’ entails knowledge of traditional cosmologies and their aesthetics as well as opportunities for interaction with modernity—both of which Kngwarreye had. My intention here is not to demean the artist’s crucial relationship to modernity but to delineate an alternative framework that more fully emphasises the embeddedness of her botanical imagination in the pencil yam Dreaming and everyday interactions with the species based on notions of ‘increase’.

Kngwarreye’s earliest rendering of a yam using methods and materials introduced from outside the Central Desert area is Untitled (Yam) (1981), a vibrantly coloured batik-on-cotton. Composed in various hues of purple, the batik evokes/invokes a field profuse in plump yams with textured skin enclosed in a meshwork of twisting rhizomes and twining stems (Neale, ‘Origins’ 65). Marking an initial phase of her artistic articulation of anooralya Dreaming, the audacious phytograms would never recur in her oeuvre. Instead, her pictorial style evolved towards less naturalistic visualisations employing intricate brushstrokes to elicit the subterranean circuitries of the pencil yam. Presenting an aerial view of a yam site in a state of effusive fecundity, the batik integrates the dot patterns typical of the Papunya Tula School of Painters with the elaborate lineation characteristic of her later yam-art. However, unlike the distinctive rhythmic variation of Big Yam Dreaming (1995)—alternating between slow curves and sudden flexures—the early batik is a relatively even and balanced composition. After a lifetime of painting on sand and bodies, Kngwarreye turned towards batik in the late 1970s as a medium for expressing traditional Anmatyerre Dreaming narratives (Museums Victoria). Originating in Indonesia, batik is a textile-making process that involves the application of hot wax to create aesthetic patterns by regulating the flow of dye on cloth. In 1977, in a series of government-sponsored workshops, educator Jenny Green started teaching batik techniques to Anmatyerre and Alyawarra women, leading to the formation of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group about a year later. In fact, proceeds from the sale of the group’s batiks helped to fund the historic Utopia Land Claim. In 1988, Kngwarreye’s batiks appeared as part of the international exhibition Utopia – A Picture Story. Around the same time, her transition from batik to canvas was catalysed by Emu Woman (1988–89), a painting that features the wild seeds ground to produce a damper for women’s ceremonies (Neale, ‘Origins’ 60–61).

Following her transition to canvas, the pencil yam, or anooralya, continued to dominate Kngwarreye’s subject matter. Anooralya – Wild Yam (1989) is one of several works during this transformational phase in the artist’s phytopoetics that narrates the ancestral entanglement between the yam and the emu (Kngwarreye, ‘Anooralya IV’). An array of dots overlays a gridwork of lines, slashes and arcs, generating a temporally textured narrative. The painting’s substratum delineates sacred places and significant sites—soakages, outcrops, stones, trees and tuber grounds—along the Dreaming track of Anooralya Altyerre, the wild yam creation being. Rather than a modernist abstraction, à la Pollock and other expressionists, the artwork is a schematisation of the passageways—interlinked human and more-than-human movements between locales and sites, from yam to yam—across Anmatyerre country. The elaborate and dense configuration of dots invokes the dispersal of yam seeds across the landscape in conjunction with the footprints of emus in search of them. Materialised by a palimpsestic arrangement of forms, the hetero-temporality of the work interleaves the specific time modalities of yams, emus, humans, ancestors and the Dreaming. A visual phytopoetics of hetero-temporality factors into other paintings of this period, including ArlatyeyeWild Yam (1991) (Kngwarreye, ‘Arlatyeye – Wild Yam’), with its dot-seed field superimposed over a mesh of linear traces, and Yam Dreaming (1991) (Kngwarreye, “Yam Dreaming”) with its pattern of larger dabs arranged within a latticework that evokes the microscopic vein and stomatal structure of leaves. Furthermore, composed in engrossing yellow hues but lacking the underlying structures characteristic of the previous paintings, Kame (1991) calls forth the pencil yam seeds vital to Kngwarreye’s Dreaming (Kngwarreye, ‘Kame’).

To engage dialogically with yam-time, to become entangled within it, in resistance to totalising colonialist constructions—as I suggest that Kngwarreye’s paintings do—is to link to heterogeneous temporal modes of the vegetal world. Kngwarreye’s yam-art constitutes such an interface, an opening that intervenes in the negation of vegetal différance—of yam poiesis. In this context, ecocritic Alfred Siewers employs the neologism time-plexity to denote the entwining of chronos and kairos—of human and more-than-human modes of time. A term derived from cognitive linguistics, plexity denotes a conceptual category predicated on the articulation of multiple elements. For Siewers, time-plexity signifies the co-passage of beings through occasions of timing, timeliness and timelessness, towards the possibility of non-time consciousness (Siewers 109). Kngwarreye’s Dreaming narratives bring attention to the intricacies of time-plex human interchanges with vegetal nature by denying reductionistic conceptions of time and countering predeterminations of its relationship to space. Philosopher David Wood similarly articulates the plexity—or entangled nature—of temporal scales that he identifies as foundational to phenomenological experience of the environment (Wood 213–17). As a ‘locus of resistance’, in Marder’s terms, the plexity of plant-time destabilises the hyper-capitalist logic of modernity by refusing the conversion of plant différance into sameness (103). To be certain, the temporal order of Aboriginal societies across Australia is premised on the heterogeneity of time as times or timelinesses encompassing country, spirit, celestial transactions and supernatural forces. As signified by Kngwarreye’s yam-art, the Dreaming of Aboriginal cultures sustains—indeed, mediates and enacts—temporally complex intersections between vegetal ancestors and human communities.

The mid-1990s brought about an intensification of Kngwarreye’s yam poetics, specifically the heightening of the spatiotemporal vigour evident in Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) (1995), discussed at the essay’s opening. During these two intensive years, just prior to her death in 1996, Kngwarreye produced a number of series—a proliferation of artworks that parallels, and provokes, the flourishing of the pencil yam in its habitat and within the artist’s consciousness. The series Anooralya (1995), for instance, epitomises her evolution towards tendrilous traces painted against white, gray or black fields. The emergence of seeds and plants at the interstices of profuse stems and rhizomes communicates the function of the paintings as mediators of vegetal ‘increase’. One work in the series, Anooralya IV (1995), consists of ghostly, opaque white lines against a black background (Kngwarreye, ‘Anooralya IV’). Whereas some lines run parallel to each other, others converge and entwine. Notably at the viewer’s top left, zones of dense brushwork contrast sharply to a relatively scarce middle area centred on a lone vertical stroke. At the right side, a knot of tendrils impinges on the emptiness of the painting’s mid-section. Summoning yet also encouraging the lively poiesis of the yam, Anooralya IV interposes between human and vegetal domains—and, indeed, timeframes—through its hetero-temporal orientation. In contrast to Anooralya, the Wild Yam (1995) series makes use of multi-coloured lineation to cultivate a dense tracery mimetic of yam poiesis in the earth. Wild Yam V (1995) in particular implements rapid—nearly frenetic—brushstrokes with impulsive orientations to arouse the florescence of yam being-in-the-world (Kngwarreye, ‘Wild Yam V’).

As seen in Anwerlarr Anganenty (1995), the yam paintings Kngwarreye created in her final years became physically larger and more encompassing. As an example, Big Yam (1996) comprises four panels and measures about three-by-four meters in total (Kngwarreye, ‘Big Yam’). The impenetrable tangle of vibrantly hued brushstrokes divulges only the faintest glimpses of the black background. Crowded, meandering lines invoke the poiesis of the yam within its habitat but also within the artist’s Dreaming. Understood as expansively intermediatory rather than narrowly representational, the painting issues a direct appeal to the plant to continue to flourish in order to sustain subsequent generations of Anmatyerre people and the community of life on which they will depend. Yet, notwithstanding the pervasiveness of the pencil yam in Kngwarreye’s oeuvre, her work calls to prominence multispecies relationality, biocultural knowledge and the interstitiality of the human subject. The yam is but one node within a network of beings—of land and Dreaming, of the natural and otherworldly. When asked about her paintings, Kngwarreye responded in terms of the all-embracing totality of Awelye Dreaming and Anmatyerre country: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot. Awelye (my Dreaming), Arlatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekwe (favourite food of emus, a small plant), Atnwerle (green bean), and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint, whole lot’ (Neale, ‘Marks of Meaning’ 232). While remaining attuned to the temporal cadences of vegetal life and, above all, the pencil yam, Kngwarreye’s paintings call forth the multiple temporalities that ebb and flow within Country. In other words, her yam-art shifts from evocation to invocation—from botanical representation to human-plant intermediation. (Kngwarreye’s Big Yam can be viewed here).

Reducible to neither an artefact nor an object, her paintings are agential things-in-themselves, like the plants they engage. Kngwarreye’s wild yam Dreaming is entrained to the hetero-temporality of the plant within its biocultural network. Moving outside the constraints of two-dimensional aesthetic imagery, her art invokes the poiesis of the yam—its making, bringing-forth and becoming in the world, its opening to the other in synchrony with the artist’s opening in response to it. In Through Vegetal Being, Michael Marder comments, ‘Living at the rhythm of the seasons means respecting the time of plants and, along with them, successively opening oneself to various elements’ (in Irigaray and Marder 144). To exist out of season, for Marder, is ‘to exist out of tune with the milestones of vegetal time: germination, growth, blossoming, and fruition’ (in Irigaray and Marder 143). To be certain, Kngwarreye’s paintings of anooralya exist in tune respectfully with the landmarks of yam temporality. Her work moreover coalesces the multifarious temporal pulsations of Anmatyerre Country within which the time of the yam is nested. In a climate-disturbed era marked by the escalating technologisation of flora, humans and time, Kngwarreye’s yam renderings remind us of the vital—and vitalising—interstices between plants, people and places within, and beyond, Alhalkere Country.

*Managing editor's note

While, as the author shows, Elkin made some sound observations in relation to Aboriginal culture, his assimilationist views reflect an ideology underlying forced removal of Indigenous children and contribute to the ongoing experience of intergenerational trauma for First Nations.

Works Cited

Bardon, Geoffrey, and James Bardon. Papunya: A Place Made After the Story. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2018.

Bradley, John with Yanyuwa families. Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of Carpentaria. Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2010.

Brody, Anne Marie. ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye’. Stories: Eleven Aboriginal Artists, edited by Anne Marie Brody. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1997. 75–80.

Crase, Beth, et al. ‘Anmatjerre Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Conservation of Antjulkinah, the Giant Sweet Potato’. Australasian Plant Conservation, vol. 19, no. 4, 2011, pp. 12–13.

Derrida, Jacques. De la Grammatologie. Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1967.

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Elkin, Peter. The Australian Aborigines: How To Understand Them. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1938.

Green, Jenny. ‘Emily Kame Kngwarray: An Accidental Modernist’. Artlink, vol. 20, no. 1, 2000, 17–19.

Grey, George. Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-west and Western Australia During the Years 1837, ’38 and ’39. vol. 1. London, T. and W. Boone, 1841.

Hallam, Sylvia. Fire and Hearth: A Study of Aboriginal Usage and European Usurpation in South-western Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1975.

Holt, Janet. ‘Glossary’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998. 200

Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. New York, Columbia University Press, 2016.

Isaacs, Jennifer. ‘Anmatyerre Woman’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998. 12–16.

Kngwarreye, Emily Kame. ‘Anooralya IV’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998. 163.

———. ‘Arlatyeye – Wild Yam’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney,  Craftsman House, 1998. 46.

———. ‘Kame’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998. 68–69.

———. ‘Wild Yam V’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998. 178–79.

———. ‘Yam Dreaming’. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, edited by Janet Holt. Sydney,  Craftsman House, 1998. 61.

———. ‘Big Yam’. Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, edited by Margo Neale. Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008. 186–87.

Latz, Peter. Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia. Alice Springs,  IAD Press, 1995.

Lawn, R.J., and A.E. Holland. ‘Variation in the Vigna lanceolata Complex for Traits of Taxonomic, Adaptive or Agronomic Interest’. Australian Journal of Botany, vol. 51, 2003, 295–308. doi: 10.1071/BT02105.

Marder, Michael. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, Columbia University Press, 2013.

McLean, Ian. ‘Aboriginal Modernism? Two Histories, One Painter’. Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, edited by Margo Neale. Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008. 23–29.

Moyle, Richard, and Slippery Morton. Alyawarra Music: Songs and Society in a Central Australian Community. Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1986.

Museums Victoria. ‘Utopia Women’s Batik Group, Northern Territory, 1970s–1980s‘. Accessed 30 Nov. 2019.

National Gallery of Victoria. ‘Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming)‘. Accessed 30 Nov. 2019.

Neale, Margo. ‘Marks of Meaning: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’. Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, edited by Margo Neale. Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008. 232.

———. ‘Origins’. Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, edited by Margo Neale. Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008. 45–67.

———. ‘Emily Kame Kngwarreye: The Impossible Modernist’. Artlink, vol. 37, no. 2, 2017, 42–49.

Neidjie, Bill. Story About Feeling, edited by Keith Taylor. Broome, WA, Magabala Books, 1989.

Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu. Broome, WA, Magabala Books, 2014.

Ryan, John Charles. ‘Writing the Lives of Plants: Phytography and the Botanical Imagination.’ a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, in press.

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Soos, Antal, and Peter Latz. The Status and Management of the Native Sweet Potato Ipomoea polpha in the Northern Territory. Alice Springs, Northern Territory Heritage Commission and the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, 1987.

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Published: March 2020
John Charles Ryan

is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Humanities at Southern Cross University. His interests include ecopoetics, critical plant studies and the environmental humanities. His poetry collection Seeing Trees: A Poetic Arboretum, co-authored with Glen Phillips, is forthcoming with Pinyon Publishing. In 2020, he will be Writer-in-Residence at Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Visiting Scholar at University of 17 Agustus 1945 in Surabaya, Indonesia.


The Trumpian Nil

by Meredith Wattison

The Persistent Finds, Their Dislocating Beauty and Political Suicide of Virginia Woolf’s Solid Objects; An Abstract Variation on Kim’s Game.

In loving memory of Mervyn Wattison, 1929 – 2018


Transience and transposition. Barrack Obama becomes Donald Trump.

My father’s right hand carefully slips another sweet biscuit, like an esoteric token, into his ubiquitous flanno’s crumbed breast pocket. His dementia, compounded by a stroke, and his left hand cogently render all objects to him, including its fingers and thumb, ‘slippery’, and so, made specific by. All things left are slipping. Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ is impalpable. (The internet meme, and its merchandise, of Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa – Trump as Perseus, Clinton as Medusa – pervasive during the 2016 US election campaign embodies its slanging tone.) My modest and honest father is dematerialising.

By unctuous grip of Virginia Woolf’s manifold dripping green, deepened to a rising incorporeal blue, a heightening and kaleidoscopic early-morning’s unoccupied domestic room where ‘the china of the plate flowed and the steel of the knife were liquid’ (The Waves, 20), some would find humour, others would see profundity, vorticism, contradiction and reform. She solidifies flux to an ambiguous foundation, a shapeless artefact, as conveyance and vernacular, as deftly as Otto Steinert’s surrealist gelatin silver print photograph of 1950, taken from above, Pedestrian’s Foot; its subject’s travelling body blurs to transparency, its polished shoe’s absurd definition (as visceral as the empty pair, like cast skin, held by a subtly proffering mother as she begins to clear the inert, though still vivified space of Woolf’s 1922 experimental novel Jacob’s Room) animates a neat pavement, its curbed tree counterpoint’s lacy and radiating bourgeois grille, like the iris of the viewer’s eye, with a passing footless smudge, adjacent to a tessellated surface. For Woolf, all is impalpable, fluid. Polished curbing solidity, though visually captivating, is to be questioned and has no absolute. Her appetite for the unsound object is without parameter.

Our appetite for gloss, bling, glister, polish – the shiny object – represents a kind of primal thirst. Our deep brain still looks for water. Along with arbiters’ manufactured outrage, a viral, sensorial sense of entitlement, and planned obsolescence, consumer psychology exploits this instinct. A glossy magazine, a faceted high-rise, sequins, a racehorse, an iPhone, a shiny sports car, a polished floor, a diamond, a cubic zirconia, may make us believe that we’ll never be thirsty again. A chimp will lick a Rolex Oyster, a Neolithic flint, Swarovski’s dewy window, a patent stiletto, an expansive wafer-thin HDR flat-screen, shrink-wrap. These, with aquatic microbeaded, fibrous technofossils, will glitter our Anthropocene sediment. Wealth, to a monkey, is reflective and drinkable.

There is tribalism, spurious momentum and Eurocentric historicism in the two indistinct arguing figures emerging, on approach, out of the reflective delusory nil of watery light, softly, bluntly knocking, then crackling static, inhaling shingle (I think of Woolf’s reference to, in a 1925 diary entry, a reviewer in The Times who ‘mumbles and murmurs like a man sucking pebbles’ [A Writer’s Diary, 104]) and sidereal, unstable sand in her short story, ‘Solid Objects’ (A Haunted House, 80), written (significantly, a century ago) in 1918, and first published in The Athenaeum in October 1920. Like both Salvador Dali’s objectified oblivion, construct and collapse in Persistence of Memory (1931) and (after sleeping under the pier on the 1960s diametric Brighton Beach) Pete Townshend’s – ‘the mod’ Jimmy’s – curative love and unbounded mysticism in Quadrophenia (1973), its setting is littoral and mimetic of the susurrant nexus of Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘Dover Beach’ (The Treasury Of English Poetry, 573), written in 1851. Unlike Woolf’s, Arnold’s beach is seen and heard, at full tide, at night, from a honeymooner’s beachside window. It is ‘moon-blanched’ and speaks, as Sophocles heard it ‘on the Aegean’, slowly and evenly, ‘Listen! You hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in.’ His plea of ‘Ah, love, let us be true /To one another!’ comes after his uncomfortable, industrial-age humanism has lost its gilt ear, and night vision, for ‘faith’ – ‘once too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.’ He, straining to hear a fundamental faith, hears shingle, settles, asks (his bride), for fidelity.

Woolf begins, ‘The only thing that moved upon the vast semicircle of the beach was one small black spot.’ (Though, I extrinsically place my father, as flux, as an unseen boy, without context, here.) Its ‘four legs’ become two young men, with ‘little round heads’, dressed in the utilitarian garb of conservatism’s caricature and ascendency; the pretentious uniform of Vivienne Westwood’s Anglomania label’s provocateur, ‘the mouths, noses, chins, little moustaches, tweed caps, rough boots, shooting coats, and check stockings … , the smoke of their pipes went up into the air, nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies’ (80).

These two, now vivid, figures fling themselves down beside ‘the six ribs and spine of the black pilchard boat.’ Similarly, in her avant-garde ‘short story’, for want of the forecast term of ‘microtext’, of only two capricious, consciousness-streamed, almost riffing pages consisting of two colour-washed paragraphs, ‘Blue & Green’ (Monday Or Tuesday, 56), written as she began to flex the craft of modernism to test impressionist prose, reasoning, in her 1920 diary, that she needed to ‘grope and experiment’ (43) to find something lyrically new, ‘Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat’ (57). These are the imprinted colours of her mother’s three rings, which absorbed her as a child, ‘a diamond ring, an emerald ring, and an opal ring’ (Moments Of Being, 81). The lights of the opal ‘fixed’ her eyes as it ‘moved across the page of the lesson book when she taught us’.

(Her mother’s early death would shock and shape her; her anthropomorphic Victorian childhood – her mother’s last affectionate and indicative words to her were, ‘Hold yourself straight, my little Goat’ [84] – at the height of Darwinism with its natural sciences fervour, would be both defined and unhaired by solid objects and patriarchal interior constraint, tempered by regular blistering London walks with her vigorous, increasingly deaf father and a precursory carte blanche of his lofty, dizzying library and her intractable, imaginative outdoor sibling horseplay in Kensington Gardens and their St Ives’ holiday garden and beach with serialized storytelling – Jim Joe and Harry Hoe, a London story and Beccage and Hollywinks [76], a St Ives creation – and infrequent hyperreal defining bouts of stunning reflection or ‘moments of being’ amid mostly monotonous ‘non-being’[70].)

Woolf’s parallel, ubiquitous colours, mixed as a shock of viridian, enamel Archibald Knox’s dark Tudric pewter to the same extraordinary intensifying effect.

What is green are the precariously fixed faceted glass pendants of a Victorian lustre on a marble mantelpiece, predicting by ten years, the supple sunlit objects in The Waves’ inchoate and anarchic room, seen through, though not by, a child’s eyes, where colours, with solar progression ‘had overflown their banks’ (181) and ultimately ‘the waves’ will break, or crush, like an object. The amorphous children form with their spoken elemental words in the garden.

‘Blue & Green’ was included in the only thin volume of short stories published during her lifetime, Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921. In a subsequent republishing in 1944, with a forward by its editor, Leonard Woolf (civil servant, author, publisher, pacifist, political theorist), it is omitted due to his judgment that it is ‘only just in the stage beyond that of her first sketch’ (A Haunted House, 8). He felt that she would have revised and rewritten it, perhaps ‘a great many times’. It is to our advantage that she didn’t and that it does appear in reprints. Its groping sketchiness achieves the free-association passing of day to night, interweaves parakeet feathers, green pools; ‘rushes edge them’, a stark lucidity in a marine hybrid – not a seal, not a whale, with ‘blunt nostrils’, ‘hide’, losing ‘dry blue scales’ – and a puissant breathtaking depth as ‘A wave rolls beneath the blue bells’ (57).

All day long the ten fingers of the lustre drop green upon the marble. (56)

In Solid Objects, while Charles, after their flailing political argument has dissolved and their analogous bodies have loosened, begins ‘skimming flat pieces of slate over the water’ (perhaps these have drifted there from the derelict wave of bombsite demolitions; flattened roofs reduced to black shingle), John is absent-mindedly ‘burrowing his fingers down, down, into the sand’; pooling depth distracts him, with a crumbed ambitious working syntax (of a grains-of-global-sand-and-infinite-dust-of-far-flung-stars ratio) and skin to water indigence sucking at his fingertips, while surface suffices and serves Charles. Through these small focusing actions, values and politics divide them. Their names’ descent classifies.

John’s thoughts childishly drift to what to make with the space his hand has made in the welling sand when his fingers meet ‘a full drop of solid matter’, work at it and lift it free. He wipes away its coating of sand and sees an ‘irregular’, green-tinted lump of opaque glass tumbled and smoothed by the sea, so anonymously smooth, edgeless and featureless, it is impossible to guess a domestic, or industrial, origin, or consider its years of abrasion. Artisan / mass producer’s negation lifted from its source. He imagines it variously made into jewellery, ‘or a dull green light upon a finger’. Perhaps it had slipped from a Princess’s finger or come (if an – her mother’s? – emerald) from an Elizabethan oak trunk (a glimmer of sleeping Orlando) lost and eventually unlocked by the waves. He can, by holding it close to his eye, blot out the body of his friend with it. ‘It pleased him; it puzzled him; it was so hard, so concentrated, so definite an object compared with the vague sea and the hazy shore’ (82).

(The pathological Pip Trout in Katherine Mansfield’s At The Bay – one of ten short stories completed between July 1921 and January 1922 and published in The London Mercury, January 1922, vol IV, no 27, and in The Garden Party and Other Stories, Constable, 1922 – extracts just such a miracle, ‘ “It’s a nemeral,” said Pip solemnly.’ [The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, 173], ‘big as a star and far more beautiful’ [174] from the saturated – by Pip’s obliging younger brother, Rags – ‘cocoa’ coloured New Zealand’s sand’s ‘Crescent Bay’ or Day’s Bay, Wellington [Katherine Mansfield, A Biography, 47]. This groundless, callous, grandiose boy a natural antecedent for Trump’s nepotic, harried, revolving-door team; the leaking one with all the I’s. On Saturday nights Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin incoherently clarify.)

Impulse, after sandwiches and silence, and Charles’s eventual prosaic intake of breath and half-consciously dismissive, ‘To return to what I was saying – ,’ slips the find into John’s pocket.

Woolf likens it to the obviously familiar act of the emotional, selective child who will choose (prized as though a gently plucked natural pearl, a creamy satiny drop from a nobleman’s ear) one pebble from a path for the ‘nursery mantelpiece’, ‘believing that the heart of the stone leaps with joy when it sees itself chosen from a million like it’ (82).

The recurrent stripping of objectified behavioural reserve, which Woolf employs throughout her work to reveal the underlying shrill ego, is here spoken by the little stone, ‘I, I, I!’ In her polemic, A Room Of One’s Own, the existential monolith of ‘I’, after reading a few chapters of a man’s writing, appears, blocks and obscures ‘the landscape behind it’ – ‘a shadow seemed to lie across the page’. ‘But – here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other – the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I” all is shapeless as mist’ (130). The isolated ‘I’, unseen, self-absorbed and contemplative, fills the room as it scans the illusion-shifting cinematic ceiling in her essay, ‘On Being Ill’ (Selected Essays, 101), it shows itself in relation to a kind of Orlando-esque meditative succession of identities until ‘I’ suppresses them. I doubt its title’s resemblance to her ‘I, I, I’ motif is accidental.

Louis’s aspirational male self in The Waves is reinforced by the repetition of signing his name. ‘I have signed my name,’ said Louis, ‘already twenty times. I, and again I, and again I’ (127).

A poet speaks to a doctor, at a somewhat forced, ‘Present Day’ (1937) disparate family gathering to mark the matriarchal emancipation gained by liquidating the ‘Victorian’ Pargiter (its philological meaning accepted as plasterer from pargit, to plaster over, or whitewash) family home (where, in ‘1880’, she lived among ‘the Morris wall-papers and the cabinets’), in The Years,

My people, he was saying … hunted. Her attention wandered. She had heard it all before. I, I, I – he went on. It was like a vulture’s beak pecking, or a vacuum-cleaner sucking, or a telephone bell ringing. I, I, I. … For what do I care about his, ‘I.I.I’? Or his poetry? Let me shake him off then, she said to herself, feeling like a person whose blood had been sucked, having all the nerve-centres pale. He thought her stupid, she supposed.

‘I’m tired,’ she apologized. ‘I’ve been up all night,’ she explained. ‘I’m a doctor –’

The fire went out in his face when she said ‘I’. That’s done it – now he’ll go, she thought. He can’t be ‘you’ – he must be ‘I’. She smiled. For up he got and off he went. (342–3)

Into this same dystopian room are brought the caretaker’s children as a curiosity. ‘Eleanor glanced at their hands, at their clothes, at the shape of their ears’ (407). They are given cake and told to eat, they do, speak, they do not, and ‘sing for a sixpence’. Their song, like a ‘gift of tongues’, written in navigable phonetic verses by Woolf (reminiscent of her second nervous breakdown at twenty-two, when she heard birds singing in Greek after the death of her father [Flush, viii]), mystifies its rapt listeners.

They sang the second verse more fiercely than the first. The rhythm seemed to rock and the unintelligible words ran themselves together almost to a shriek. The grown up people did not know whether to laugh or cry. Their voices were so harsh; the accent was so hideous. (408)

The finely schooled and carefully wed are at a loss in Woolf’s ‘Present Day’.

By turning these words, hymnic and anthemic in their ferocity, into baffling, almost anthropological objects held in the mouths of children, brought into the room, Woolf brings a condemning neophobic irrelevance into this outgrown ‘home’.

Her, often questioned, political awareness and integrity regarding ‘servants’ is clear, stemming from a childhood experience of witnessing her own servants’ quarters and a confrontation involving her mother, again from ‘A Sketch Of The Past’ in her autobiographical Moments Of Being, ‘The basement was a dark insanitary place for seven maids to live in. “It’s like hell,” one of them burst out to my mother as we sat at lessons in the dining room. My mother at once assumed the frozen dignity of the Victorian matron; and said (perhaps): “Leave this room”; and she (unfortunate girl) vanished behind the red plush curtain which, hooped round a semi-circular wire, and anchored by a great gold knob, hid the door that led from the dining room to the pantry’ (116). It is again apparent in The Years regarding ‘faithful’ Crosby – ‘They always spoke to her in the third person, because she never answered but only grinned’ (145) – ‘in best bonnet and mantle’, following her mistress ‘about the house like a dog all morning’ (205), who in ‘1913’ (in which the family home is ‘put up for rent’), ‘with her wheezy old dog are being put out to grass, after forty years, to a rented room in Richmond’ (xv). She continues to launder for one of the sons, and on telling him about the death of her beloved dog, he lies to get away from her, ‘She stood for a moment, like a frightened little animal, peering round her before she ventured to brave the dangers of the street’ (212).

Elizabeth Barrett’s maid, Wilson, in Flush, is only afforded a forename, Lily, once they have left the patriarchal home of England and settled into life with Robert Browning in Italy, ‘where women could walk alone’ and at first, Wilson, ‘maintained her British balance’. ‘So Mrs Browning every day, as she tossed off her Chianti and broke another orange from the branch, praised Italy and lamented poor, dull, damp, sunless, joyless, expensive, conventional England’ (76).

While Leonard’s political interests were becoming more official, Virginia’s remained, although preferring to be independent of committees (unlike Leonard), pragmatic and directly worked into her writing. She remained sceptical of patriarchal, capitalistic and imperial institutions, as her diary entry of Saturday 27 July (1918) reflects, ‘By rights of importance I should remark that today L. was asked to stand for Parliament. I haven’t yet turned my mind that way. A natural disposition to think Parliament ridiculous routs serious thought. But perhaps it isn’t so ridiculous as speeches make one suppose’ (Selected Diaries, 48).

Although he did run as a Labour (Left) Candidate in the 1922 General Election, and despite the fact that he failed, the Conservatives won and Labour was in Opposition. ‘I do not think I made a very good impression, partly because I did not always succeed in concealing the fact that I was not really very eager to be an MP’ (Leonard Woolf: A Life, 241). His intense edge, though promising, societal aversion and mounting, multiplying commitments hadn’t swayed his Combined English Universities constituency. He would, as political theorist, help lay the foundations for what would eventually become the United Nations. (Characteristically, rated by Trump in April of 2017 as an ‘underperformer’.) Perhaps naïvely inaccurately, after their first meeting in 1903 in Virginia’s brother Thoby’s Trinity rooms (Cambridge) she asked about Leonard’s ‘trembling’, Thoby, who thought Leonard’s unwillingness to accept ‘life’ was ‘sublime’ explained, ‘it was part of his nature – he was so violent, so savage; he so despised the whole human race’ (62).

In Woolf’s short essay, ‘Old Mrs Grey’, and the better-known flânerie-style, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, the realism of being worked to death, ‘Her body (Mrs Grey’s) was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire’ (The Death Of The Moth, 21) and seeing between Holborn and Soho, ‘the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse’ (28), perhaps stems from this 1918 diary entry, ‘We spent yesterday doing jobs in London. I saw a dead horse on the pavement – a literal case of what politicians call dying in harness, and rather pathetic to me – to die in Oxford Street one hot afternoon, and to have been only a van horse; and by the time I had passed back again he was removed’ (49).

At first, John’s pocketed baroque find served as a paperweight on his mantelpiece and ‘naturally’ became a ‘stopping place for the young man’s eyes when they wandered from his book’.

Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it. (82)

(Just as an abstract roadside plastic bag, empty and billowing, can look like a sharp lump of granite.)

He becomes drawn to the windows of ‘curiosity shops’; things remind him of his lump of glass. ‘Anything, so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble – even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do’ (83).

He begins to scan the ground as he walks, especially for discarded ‘shapeless’ things, ‘in the neighbourhood of waste land where the household refuse is thrown away’. He soon has a small collection of ‘specimens’ inhabiting his mantelpiece by precept. As a young political hopeful ‘on the brink of a brilliant career’ these became useful as organisers for his ‘addresses of constituents, declarations of policy, appeals for subscriptions, invitations to dinner, and so on’.

Leaving ‘his rooms in the Temple’ one day, to catch a train to meet with his constituency, his trajectory is compromised and unravelled by grotesquery, ‘a remarkable object lying half-hidden in one of those little borders of grass which edge the bases of vast legal buildings’. It was just out of the reach of his stick through railings – ‘a piece of china of the most remarkable shape, as nearly resembling a starfish as anything – shaped, or broken accidentally, into five irregular but unmistakable points. The colouring was mainly blue, but green stripes or spots of some kind overlaid the blue, and lines of crimson gave it a richness and lustre of the most attractive kind’ (83).

The colours of majolica? Poole with ziggurats? A Chinese bowl? Derby’s Imari? De Morgan? He returns to his rooms to ‘improvise a wire ring attached to the end of a stick’ and as he brings the vivid extraordinary within his reach, a clock strikes; the meeting is missed, ‘held without him’. Time becomes fragmentary.

(In Jürgen Klauke’s tabular series of silver gelatin photographs, Formalizing Boredom, 1979-80, a suited man – for our purposes, John within ‘his rooms in The Temple’ – attempts to pass his whole body through the formal confines, or frame, of an upturned wooden chair. The high-backed slatted chair, its seat missing, as domestic relic, held above his head produces a bullish, bending, interpretive staggered dance. The struggle to breach its edges and fit through produces horns, from hands and chair legs, and an empirical oblique execution of aesthetic birth; it is his shoulders’ societal uniform, convention and universal scale that prevent his passage.)

The random accident of its ‘star shape’, like a floating, palpable virtual asterisk pulled from an annotated paper, with its undoubted organic rarity overtakes him.

Set at the opposite end of the mantelpiece from the lump of glass that had been dug from the sand, it looked like a creature from another world – freakish and fantastic as a harlequin. It seemed to be pirouetting through space, winking light like a fitful star. The contrast between the china so vivid and alert, and the glass so mute and contemplative, fascinated him, and wondering and amazed he asked himself how the two came to exist in the same world, let alone to stand upon the same narrow strip of marble in the same room. (84)

Instead of arbitrarily finding, while ably pursuing his career, he begins to purposely go to places

which are most prolific of broken china, such as pieces of waste land between railway lines, sites of demolished houses, and commons in the neighbourhood of London. But china is seldom thrown from a great height; it is one of the rarest of human actions. You have to find in conjunction a very high house, and a woman of such reckless impulse and passionate prejudice that she flings her jar or pot straight from the window without thought of who is below. (84)

Perhaps Woolf’s, Friday 7 June, 1918, diary entry reveals the origin of these women ‘of such reckless impulse and passionate prejudice’; their ‘very high house’ and indifference for ‘who is below’.

L. was told the other day that the raids are carried out by women. Women’s bodies were found in the wrecked aeroplanes. They are smaller and lighter, and thus leave more room for bombs. Perhaps it is sentimental, but the thought seems to me to add a particular touch of horror. (44)

(As means of consequential equivalence and historically enmeshed flowing balance, I think of the ensuing reconstructive efforts of the Trümmerfrauen [rubble women] who, from 1945, cleared the levelled cities of Germany and Austria, by hand, brick by brick.)

John’s mantelpiece is soon crowded with his ‘finest specimens’; he becomes less impeded by ‘papers’. His priorities, on Election Day, lead him to a ‘common’ where he ‘under a furze bush had found a very remarkable piece of iron’ – and elation.

It was almost identical with the glass in shape, massy and globular, but so cold and heavy, so black and metallic, that it was evidently alien to the earth and had its origin in one of the dead stars or was the cinder of a moon. It weighed his pocket down; it weighed the mantelpiece down; it radiated cold. And yet the meteorite stood upon the same ledge with the lump of glass and the star-shaped china. (85)

As Charles, who visits to console him, lifts ‘the stones on the mantelpiece a dozen times’, replacing them ‘emphatically’ while lamenting the Government, ‘without once noticing their existence’, he does not recognise the transient incandescence at their edge; their innate transposing slipperiness; the anarchy of John’s bowed chair; or the contemporary patriarchal spy-training specifics of Kim’s Game.

He cannot foresee the historical transience, just pre-Brexit vote, in June of 2016, the chilling and reverberant shock wave of global grief for ‘pro-stay’ refugee advocate, British Labour MP Jo Cox’s daylight, street-attack murder, or the terrorist attack on the institution of Westminster in March of 2017, its inconceivable pedestrian-targeted progression (Woolf is there, walking, 1922, conceiving Mrs Dalloway – why is Clarissa Dalloway walking through Westminster? She is out to buy flowers, herself. Woolf will dissolve Big Ben’s leaden circles.) or that they, the abstract, ideally transposing solid objects, are the accumulated fluidity and impalpable proof of what my father touches and lifts, the slippery glut and crumble of his currency; like broken glass, clouded and disarmed, not yet made mystery or miraculous or imbued, churned and drifting in the sea, just as the earth will gradually glaze landfill iridescent; what he invariably, incandescently knows and brushes the detritus, sand, and sugar from. He dematerialises; his hearing aids slip through his fingers like pebbles, hail, pippies, cherry seeds, and are lost.

He could tell you how he heard the end of World War II on his crystal set in Broken Hill (‘on the Aegean’) before it was universally known; he was an opaque and refracting antipodean sixteen-year-old, a virtual, and geographically parallel, son of a politician, edged by a crumbling, indefinite coast, unwillingly putting his interrupted faith in susurrant air, beneath Patrick White’s thrown fleece of cloud cover; celestial iron, as red sand, creeping into his pockets, into his spinifex hair, a viridian, not khaki, shimmering nil, where future-Trump, in over-sized ties, exists as objectifying, rapid-fire arrogance and malice Tweeting reflection only; an atomic Woolfian shiver, an anarchic oblique. A contrived spousal declaration in off-the-rack (posterior) elitist glyphs flutters like a flag, a dossier, in this haze, antediluvian gun stupefaction flares neutrality, Woolf’s tired little singers are racially foiled in pillory cages, Stormy’s trade polarizes this narcissists’ nil, this zero-tolerance, this zero, this blankness, this empty, and drifts reflective and cancelling. A fisty velociraptic Magic Marker signature towers, ‘I, I, I’, claiming, craning skyward, past constellations, and beyond, like a loaded telescope. Its one enormous eye reaches, magnifies, contracts agenda, reloads, unloads, loaded postures, curbed obliterating handshakes, Kim’s, Rodman’s, Kardashian’s, Putin’s; this Woolfian objective (as an iceberg off Greenland), this Trumpian nil.

Works Cited

Alpers, Antony. Katherine Mansfield, A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

Caldwell, Mark & Kendrick, Walter M.. The Treasury Of English Poetry. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1984.

Glendinning, Victoria. Leonard Woolf: A Life. London: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Mansfield, Katherine. The Collected Stories Of Katherine Mansfield. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2006.

Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House. London: Grafton Books, 1982.

—. A Room Of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

—. A Writer’s Diary. London: Grafton Books, 1978.

—. Flush. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

—. Moments Of Being. New York: Harvest, 1985.

—. Monday Or Tuesday. Richmond: Alma Classics, 2014.

—. Selected Diaries. London: Vintage, 2008.

—. Selected Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

—. The Death Of The Moth. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2014.

—. The Waves. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

—. The Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Published: July 2018
Meredith Wattison

poet and essayist, her 6 books of poetry are Psyche’s Circus (Poetry Australia, 1989), Judith’s Do (Penguin Australia, 1996), FishwifeThe Nihilist Line (Five Islands Press, 2001, 2003), Basket of Sunlight and terra bravura, shortlisted for the 2016 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, (Puncher & Wattmann, 2007, 2015). Awarded the 2017 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.


When the Whales Left

by Daniel Helman


The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the globe. There are perhaps fifteen years left before all the perennial Arctic sea ice has melted, and climatic as well as ecosystem health is uncertain. This set of haiku is inspired by Subhankar Banerjee’s Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (2012) and other texts, in which an ethic of habitation in nature remains. Quotation and reference to Arctic Voices help to tell the stories in the haiku. A discussion related to the convergence of art and politics, as well as a focus for sustainability—institutional as well as technological—is included.


climate change, caribou, whale, Arctic Voices, oil, sustainability



Ecological ideas are often strongly personal. When we are positively impacted by spending time in natural settings—as current work with Nature Deficit Disorder suggests—the changes are to the mood and inner workings of a person.  Because of this focus, this work starts with a personal history. The ecological aspects are woven in—yet the personal is important to understand the motivation behind work in conservation.

In the Fall of 2014, I enrolled in a doctoral program in Arizona to receive training in sustainability education, a field that has been an interest of mine since I experienced what was either a spiritual awakening or a mental breakdown (either one makes as much sense)—while I was away at university in England, just before the last decade of the 20th century. I chose to see it as an awakening, and that has led me to change what I do in my life. I took up meditation. I dropped out of college for a time and went back home to work and see what personal improvements could come. I returned to university and designed my own degree major in aesthetics and beauty. I worked as an artist, focusing on nature and creating naive forms. When the money that was supporting my art ran out, I went on to teach in adult schools and then off to a masters program in geology, the subject I had been studying before the breakdown in England. My training is in the arts and the sciences; I feel fortunate to have had such broad and broadening experiences.

Sustainability is a field in flux (Kates et al., 2001). The term arose at about the same time as global warming caught the attention of media, replacing the term conservation that I and many others recall from our youth in the 1970s. It was a time of OP shorts and Vans shoes and disco music and Star Wars and also ICBMs, and I and many of my contemporaries feared Soviet missiles and imminent nuclear war. The computer age had dawned as well, but massive amounts of connectivity and e-waste were yet to be (Dertouzos & Moses, 1979).

More recently, I learned in one of my doctoral courses that the Arctic is now home to intense contamination from industry. Heavy metals and organic pollutants travel and are concentrated at the Earth’s poles, a migration not unlike that of birds finding a home in the airways, journeying far from where they start. It is an odd situation. Mother’s milk among Alaska natives or First Nation peoples is often so contaminated that it can be classified as a toxic waste under federal guidelines (Cone, 2012).

I hadn’t thought about the airways, the movement of molecules and their accumulation in what many think of as pristine and untouched. This series of poems is an homage to the Arctic from one who was moved to try and distil some of the thoughts and beauty that arise in the tragedy of reaching the limits of our reach here on Earth. Most were inspired by passages in Subhankar Banerjee’s collection of essays Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (2012a). My process was to reflect and then see what was central and touching. I chose haiku for its power to make a person slow down, and also for the wonderful tradition in Japan of writing collections of haiku that are read in sequence, so that the effect of each builds on the previous ones. The result is a lyrical mood, connected both to nature and the experience of surprise. I think it was a good choice for reaching deeply into the heart of the devastation that is here in the 21st century.

In the next section, there is a long series of texts based on Arctic Voices—each followed by a haiku based on the selection. Next comes a discussion of causes and solutions for climate change, with a focus on the convergence of art and politics. The full set of haiku are given at the end, and the list of references follows that.

A final thought: central to the notion of sustainability is a triple bottom line—living in harmony with ecology, economy and society (Elkington, 1998). But without beauty, there is something else missing altogether. Indeed, it is where the arts, science and beauty meet that people are most inspired to work for change.

Textual Basis for the Haiku (Selections)

As described by Lord (2012) and many others, the Bering Sea is situated on a broad continental shelf—and while this type of oceanic environment was common during the Mesozoic period of Earth’s history, it is less common now.  The combination of shallow waters, upwellings, and seasonal movements of currents and ice create wonderful conditions for life. The ocean is literally teeming with organisms. There are more than 450 species of fish, crustaceans and mollusks inhabiting the waters, plus 25 different species of cetaceans, including the North Pacific right whale. The local airways host 20 million seabirds of 50 different species. Its biodiversity is immense.

Shallow seas are rich

Teeming with plankton and krill

Fifteen good years left

Climate change will mean a warmer Bering Sea. Lord (2012) continues with details. Both terrestrial and marine organisms depend on oxygen for life. As the oceans warm, marine organisms will be adversely affected. Oxygen (and other gases) escape into the atmosphere at a greater rate from warmer waters—and there will be less oxygen for marine life. This is a significant change where waters are typically very cold. Warmer waters (especially as fresh meltwater mixes in) will increase the stratification of the various layers in the Bering Sea, and that will sequester some nutrients away from organisms that are accustomed to access. The bio-productivity of the Bering Sea will decrease.  The warming will also liberate pollutants, notably mercury, and this will become more prominent in the food web. The top predators (e.g. marine mammals) will be most affected.

But there is a much worse element of the warming that may occur. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, and also more persistent. The Arctic is home to immense stores of frozen methane in the form of methane clathrate. The release of methane into the atmosphere in a similar scenario is thought to have caused the mass extinction at the end of the Permian Period 250 million years ago where 70 percent of all land-based species went extinct. Much of the frozen methane clathrate now lies under the Bering Sea.  A warmer ocean will start its release. (Lord, 2012).

Methane clathrate melts

From permafrost and sea floor

Greenhouse gas anew

Mowat (2012) relates a story of tragedy. Changing weather brings famine, and typically people will share food so that all can survive. Yet demographics may play a part in starvation, as newcomers to an area might not be aware of customs and their rationale—even turning away people who have walked days to reach out for help. And this is the story he relates, that despite having enough to keep his dogs well fed (and fat), a man turns supplicants away to starve who would have been overjoyed with some scraps of food that were abundant. The action is incongruous with humanity and the region’s culture.

The dogs are fat still

While the people starve back home

Who asked for spare food

Magnuson (2012) writes about mineral exploration and its effects on the region. Development is moving forward:

ALCOA isn’t the only one to have Greenland in their sights. They’ve found oil. There are rare earth minerals over there. People want to open up a uranium mine. There are diamonds and gold in Greenland. There are ten to a hundred Klondikes over there, waiting to be opened up. (Magnason, 2012, 121)

The political pressures prove too much to promote longterm strategies. The financial security of development often trumps other ideas.

ALCOA is now

Courting Greenland’s pristine

Cheap coal and free land

As Shearer (2012) writes, even in hindsight, the institutional framework is not set up to address the needs of Arctic peoples.

In 2005, an Iñuit petition was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, created in 1959 to uphold and investigate violations of the 1948 American Declaration of the Human Rights of Man. The Iñuit petition alleged the US government was violating the human rights of Arctic people by refusing to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Seeking caps on US emissions, the petition also called for the commission to produce plans to protect Iñuit culture and resources through adaptation assistance. The petition was rejected one year later by the commission, which maintained that the charges outlined in the petition were insufficiently supported for making a determination. The same year, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued a report stating the situation in Kivalina was ‘dire’ and that the entire town needed to be immediately relocated, at an estimated cost ranging from $100 million to $499 million, according to various government estimates.  (Shearer, 2012, 213)

Kivalina is one of many. It is not clear why the commission has rejected the claim.

Up Kivalina

The sea has taken your hand

An old pride laughs yet

The people living in the far North are often very pragmatic. Archibald (2012) relates this story of a tribal group’s decision to look for better lives—to relocate—that was split by demographics. The youth would not have stayed. The elders acquiesced.  And the villages here are no more.

Down the lake near the merlin’s nest was an archeological site where in former years researchers had unveiled the artifacts of hunters and fishermen that had been at that location for about eight thousand years. Perhaps a mile in the opposite direction from Tom’s camp, large circles of stones on the open tundra marked the location of the tents of Dené Indians who had gathered there from distant locations in 1946 to make a critical democratic decision regarding whether to remain in their traditional lifestyle on the barrens or move to modern towns. The stones held down the bases of their tents. The vote of young people to leave overpowered the vote of the Elders to remain. Only the stones, and a few derelict cabins a few miles away, remained of a people who hunted the barrens since the retreat of the glaciers. (Archibald, 2012, 173)

The impression of timeless beauty in Arctic scenes belies the changes that are coming.

With a vote of young

The stones are all that remains

Of ten thousand men

Sakakibara (2012) relates how the warming trend in the Arctic has been nearly twice the global average. This trend is set to continue, and 2025 will likely see an ice free Arctic Ocean (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, 2005). This estimate may be overly optimistic—it may occur sooner (ACIA Scientific Report, 2005). Sea ice follows a circulation pattern within the Arctic Ocean, with some of the older ice heading past Greenland into the Atlantic Ocean each winter, while some remains in the Arctic to add depth and stability to new ice forming the next year. The annual persistence of sea ice is dropping. In summer 2009, only about 20% of sea ice was third-year or older, and 32% second-year. In 2017 this older ice was much less. The thinner platforms affect hunting, and also the habitats for seals, walruses, polar bears and whales—such that the impact on human subsistence in the region will be tremendous (IPCC, 2007).

Not fifty years left

But only fifteen before

The ice will be gone

In the introduction to Arctic Voices, Banerjee (2012b) writes of the Arctic haze, a mix of chemical pollutants and other aerosols that are present in the far North. The sulfates in the haze have been shown to originate from oil and gas development, as well as from paper mills and power plants. One could make the case that many of these are local—and indeed they are related to energy development in the Arctic—yet other pollutants are traced to industries (transportation, shipping and agriculture) in Europe, North America and Asia. The migration makes sense, since airborn pollutants will often settle out in colder regions, as the air masses lose thermal energy. The Arctic haze is persistent.

At ice edge alone

The white glow arrests the Sun

Who dances through haze

Later in the book, Banerjee (2012c) recounts the story of the increase in open water in the Arctic Ocean, and of the ensuing starvation of many of the region’s polar bears.

In 2006, Dr. Monnett and a colleague published a seven-page article in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology. The article reported sightings of four drowned polar bears in the Beaufort Sea in 2004. With Arctic warming, sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate creating large expanses of open water. At times polar bears are swimming much longer distances, but after finding no sea ice to rest or feed, they are dying of exhaustion. Dr. Monnet brought all these to the world’s attention. (Banerjee, 2012c, 83)

The outcry in the media and public opinion were strong. While some of the 19 subgroups of polar bears have recovered, others are in decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently lists the polar bear population as vulnerable.

Tall plants grow fast again

Now that summer comes early

As polar bears drown

Narwhals—the toothed cetacean whose fluted ‘horn’ the informed viewer will recognise in unicorn illustrations—are one of the sea mammals in the Arctic whose ecology is changing. Lopez (2012) writes eloquently of them, likening their swimming skill to ‘gliding birds on an airless day’ as they dive in groups and effortlessly swim below schools of polar cod. Their aim is to drive the fish towards the surface so rapidly that their swim bladders expand quickly, stunning them—while at the surface waiting harp seals, fulmars and kittiwakes share in the feast. Narwhals hunt along the margins of sea ice, and up to several kilometres within those margins. Like the ice, the fish stocks that the narwhal feed on are severely threatened by the changing climate. Narwhals are also traditional prey of the Iñuit of Lancaster Sound, whose lifeways are likewise hanging in the balance.

Narwhal through the ice

Slip as one being too deep

And fish explode up

Some ecological challenges are nuanced and complex. Hunting is a traditional mode of living here. As Magnuson (2012) writes, sentiments may be inflamed.

There is a deep hatred of environmental organizations in Iceland and Greenland, not least among sailors and people in rural areas. In Iceland, Paul Watson sank whaling boats in Reykjavik Harbor back in 1986. A love of whales became a symbol for the stupidity and naivety of foreigners, and whaling became a touchstone for not giving in to ‘foreign oppression’. Greenpeace became a mock term in Iceland, a synonym for terrorists. In Greenland, the situation is somewhat worse, understandably, because real economic and social harm occurred over there when the sale of seal products was prohibited in Europe. People actually lost their livelihoods. While reindeer, moose, and wild boar are still being hunted all over Europe, the seal became something you shouldn’t use or sell. I remember one of my first political debates, when I was seventeen years old. We ran into a Greek girl who was wearing a T-shirt condemning seal hunting. ‘What are they supposed to eat over in Greenland?’ I asked. ‘Why can’t they eat vegetables?’ she said. ‘Like what, Iceberg salad?’ (Magnason, 2012, 121)

Livelihoods are pitted against both conservation and sentimentality. Positive futures depend on forward vision and shared governance.

When Watson sunk ships

In Reykjavic that gray day

Starving insurance

Government policy in the Arctic is at times based on fraudulent data. This condition has arisen during regulatory capture, when the energy industry has been regulated by an agency whose leadership are people from that industry. Banerjee (2012c) cites an example of a false EPA report that was released:

Fran prepared the caribou report and sent it to Norton. After a few months he was sent a faxed copy of the report that Norton had sent to the US Senate. Fran was horrified—Norton had replaced his report with something else entirely. Fran went to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who then started an investigation. On October 21, 2001, in a front-page story in the Washington Post, Michael Grunwald exposed Norton’s mischief: ‘[W]hen Norton formally replied to the committee, she left out the agency’s scientific data that suggested caribou could be affected by oil drilling, while including its data that supported her case for exploration in the refuge, documents show. Norton also added data that was just wrong.’ Norton’s letter to Senator Fran Murkowski dated July 11, 2001, states, ‘Figure 2 shows the extent of [caribou] calving during 1983–2000. Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area [where drilling was proposed] in 11 of the last 18 years.’ Whereas, Fran Mauer’s original report states, ‘Figure 2 shows the extent of calving during 1983–2000. … There have been PCH calving concentrations within the 1002 Area for 27 of 30 years.’  (Banerjee, 2012c, 82–83)

This type of fraud implies government corruption. The types of institutional awareness and review procedures that are needed to uproot corruption are clear in cases such as this, but the will is lacking.

At site 1002

Millions of acres await

The fall of DC

The sentiment above stands in support of Magnason’s (2012) lament over the local conditions in Greenland and Iceland. Large industries seem to have the greatest influence.

While the sale of sealskins is prohibited in Europe, you can still spoil their habitat and sell the products created in the process. Aluminum isn’t furry. It’s not a seal, nor a jungle, nor a nesting ground. … The sale of animal products is prohibited, but you can sell the products of a factory that ruins their habitat. You’re not allowed to pick the apples but you can chop down the tree. (Magnason, 2012, 116)

Preserving habitats is not a priority.

Protect the seal’s life

But not its habitat, true

News copy is old

Energy company representatives are not above lying during planning and permitting processes in the Arctic. Ott (2012) relates a story of trying to convince a tribe not to sign off on an agreement, after having been given promises of jobs, new infrastructure, and very good mitigation in case of spills. The latter is simply not possible, as weather during most of the year prevents the kind of efforts that would be required. Yet the culture in the Arctic does not expect lies—since the environment here is harsh by nature, and true dealings are often required for survival.

‘They lie’ she says slow

And lets the idea sink

Like spilled oil on tundra

Miller (2012) reports that the North Slope oil industry is subject to more than one spill per day on average—amounting to 6,000 spills of over 2.7 million gallons of toxic substances (e.g. diesel, crude oil, or hydraulic oil) during a 14-year period from 1995-2009.

A spill each day now

In Prudhoe Bay while loons

Nest in Teshekpuk

Banerjee (2012c) describes a planning meeting where the discussion focused on mitigating oil spilled in the Arctic Ocean.

During the question-and-answer period afterward, Robert, typically, asked: ‘Can oil be cleaned up in the Arctic Ocean? And if you can’t answer yes, or if it can’t be cleaned up, why are you involved in leasing this land? And I’d also like to know if there are any studies on oil toxicity in the Arctic Ocean, and how long will it take for oil there to break down to where it’s not harmful to our marine environment?’ Persily responded: ‘I think everyone agrees that there is no good way to clean up oil from a spill in broken sea ice. I have not read anyone disagreeing with that statement, so you’re correct on that.’ (Banerjee, 2012c, 68)

The prospect of a spill is not beyond reasonable assumption, yet development continues. For example, protesters tried to disrupt operations on an Arctic oil rig in 2013 and were jailed in Russia—with a very tense series of events.  Plans are currently in place for oil exploration and production to increase in the Arctic Ocean.

There is no way known

Trapped under ice still frozen

Why risk it, don’t drill

Banerjee (2012c) recalls the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico—and how devastating and difficult it was.

Marine scientist Samantha Joye visited the Gulf seafloor nearly eight months after BP’s blowout. We saw her inside a tiny submarine and she exclaimed, ‘Yeah, it looks like everything is dead.’ (Banerjee, 2012c, 85)

A spill in Arctic waters would be much more challenging.

At the site of death

Where the Deepwater well was

Oiled sea floor is still

Ott (2012) describes the scene after the spill of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in Alaska. Cleanup workers suffered from colds, flu, headaches, burning eyes, sore throats and skin rashes—with health declines following cleanup activities, leading to morbidity, disability and death in some cases. Evidence of clinical data and air quality monitoring supported the attribution of a chemical illness epidemic based on exposure to oil and dispersants, yet the government did not pursue legal action against the company related to this failure in its cleanup operations.

No Respirators

Workers cleaned oil from rocks, hope

Disabled, some dead

Cone (2012) relates how springtime is the worst season for pollutants in the Arctic. Many toxins have migrated via winds, oceans or rivers from the USA, Europe or Russia and condense in the cold of winter. Prevailing winds head north, and the cold allows for a terminus of the journey. Come spring thaw, chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are released into the ecosystem, and end up in the bodies of animals and people here.

After years and years

Nothing has changed up here

Rich with PCBs

Thompson, Ahtuangaruak, Cannon and Kingik (2012) describe respiratory illnesses during natural gas flares on the North Slope. The nitrogen oxide emissions are from the oil fields, and give the air a yellowish haze. The emissions are near their residences.

The gas flares are bright

But tiny particulates

Give asthma, no gift

Thompson, Ahtuangaruak, Cannon and Kingik (2012) also describe what would happen if there were an oil spill late in the drilling season. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, cleanup could not happen until the beginning of next year’s season. That would be about nine months after the spill, and the spill itself would travel approximately 300 to 500 miles during that time.

Ocean like a heart

Ships drill oil through the ice, spilled

Oil will drift nine months

Cone (2012) compares the pollution in the Arctic to the outbreaks of smallpox and other contagious diseases that settlers brought with them—destroying entire villages of native people. Currently Iñuit in the farthest reaches of the Arctic have mercury and PCB levels that are very high, with levels of nearly everyone in Greenland and half of the Canadian Iñuit who were tested exceeding international standards for exposure.

Mother’s milk suckled

Toxic waste from eating meat

That industry bit

Thompson, Ahtuangaruak, Cannon and Kingik (2012) describe how agency communications were negligent, with advice given to consume fish whose levels of PCB and DDT were moderate. Yet in the northern culture, certain parts of the fish (e.g. the livers) are considered a delicacy, and are often given to the Elders and children during a meal.  These parts have the highest concentration of toxins, and there was no effort made to warn against giving these to the most vulnerable people in the population.  A typical meal might include six livers.

If livers are shared

The most vulnerable folk

Eat industry waste

Ott (2012) describes the outcome of the lawsuit against Exxon related to damages caused by the Exxon Valdez spill. The company decided to oppose all damage claims in court vigorously. The entire case lasted nineteen years, and there were no damages for long-term losses, nor for loss of quality of life or culture. Subsistence claims were minimal—originally set at ‘a-buck-a-duck’ but then lowered to ten cents. The total cost amounted to four days of net profit for the company. During that time, sociologists helping with the disaster trauma noted increased domestic violence, substance abuse, divorces and suicides.

Here is one dollar

For each duck killed by oil spill

But food tastes hollow

Magnuson (2012) describes further changes coming to the Arctic. Phenology is the study of seasonal timings, and these are essential for the interwoven web of life—most significantly for predator-prey relations. An early bloom of a prey species of plankton, for example, may disrupt the ability of its traditional predator to survive if it is not nearby.  Changes are already occurring.

Mackerel swam into all of the country’s harbors last summer. My friends caught several while angling and had great trouble: nobody knew how to cook this fish. Cliffs that have always been teeming with birds living off capelin and other fish were left half empty; puffin burrows were full of chicks that died of starvation because the sand eels were a no-show. (Magnason, 2012, 110)

It is a chain of events that affects both migratory and local animals’ abilities to survive.

The calendar laughs

The eels did not come this year

And now puffin starve

Lord (2012) describes how some birds, such as the spectacled eider, are at particular risk. The entire world’s population of 360,000 spend the winter on the Bering Sea (on open-water leads in the ice). They feed on clams at the bottom. Changes that affect the clams will endanger the eider.

Spectacled eider

Dives to the deep bed and mud

Clams are not for sale

Largescale ocean circulation helps maintain food for sea life. Upwelling currents provide nutrients, and these in turn depend on the system of oceanic circulation remaining intact. Oceanic circulation works via differences in water density. Warm surface waters are pulled from the tropics by the sinking of cold, dense waters at the poles. The meltwater coming from the Greenland ice sheet and melting sea ice lower the salinity of the water significantly—since water with dissolved salt is denser than water without. The melt water is less dense than the extant seawater, and downwelling is thereby slowed. Lord (2012) likens the risk to the North Atlantic oceanic circulation to a person’s heart stopping.

The ocean surface

Flows to the Arctic as cold

Water stops sinking


This discussion arises out of the grim picture painted in the book Arctic Voices and in the haiku poems that are based on it. The writing in the original volume is both beautiful and haunting. As an author, one feels responsible to present some sort of solutions that might help to buoy the spirit after such a deeply troubling exploration—where neglect seems to have been the rule in terms of political will. The stories are important and difficult. Yet solutions are also abundant. What is presented below is a framework upon which one might imagine real solutions being built. There is a possibility for hope.

The ecological challenge humanity faces now has its causal antecedents in the distant past, as well as in the present moment. Several hundred years of environmental degradation are not simply the fault of anything small, but rather a composite that tracks itself along two paths, like a railroad upon the steel tracks that satisfy the requirements of predictability. The first rail is a loss of leadership.

Institutionalised atrocities have arisen from centuries, if not millennia, of empire and colonisation, where effective leadership and resistance in a place have been damaged, even destroyed. In many cases, longterm connection to place and people have been supplanted by short-term (and often short-sighted) goals, resulting in an institutionalised amnesia.

This institutional amnesia can be countered by people working together to establish, and improve on, healthy institutions. Real leadership need not be lost forever. The principles of shared responsibility and process-based decision-making can be established deeply—and this should allow for governments and other major players to make decisions that will protect vulnerable places and people who inhabit our world (Van den Hove, 2000). There is the possibility to make the world more connected thereby.

A second rail in this railway of environmental degradation has to do with the needs themselves that drive war (or resource extraction) to consume what health and beauty there is in the world. Whether it is land for farming, or oil for industry, or other natural resources such as metals or wood, there have always been excuses for one group to wish and try to take possession of what is a shared resource or what belongs to some other place or group. Wars are fought for access.

Notwithstanding, humanity is at a very bright moment—when it is conceivable that cities may be nearly completely self-sustaining in resource use if energy production can be made to be cheap or nearly free (Norris & Aydil, 2012). All the agriculture, textiles and other manufacturing and production can be pursued within the bounds of a city (Burgess & Jenks, 2002). Thus the impetus for war (i.e. to gather resources from elsewhere) need not be present. It is possible for entire cities to be supplied from local goods. Though this vision is not a reality, it is a possibility. The needs that fuel expansion and environmental degradation can be met safely if clean, renewable energy is pervasive and cheap and this is nearly the case.

Shared institutional leadership and self-sustaining cities are two straight rails that can establish a way out of an environmental dystopia that has been building for millennia. The present need not be without hope for the future. There is not much time remaining, however, and the task at hand is very large. Art (including the temporal arts of poetry, song, stage, television, film, opera, etc.) are traditionally a means of building a shared vision. It has been my hope that the convergence of art and politics will be taken up by many people, and that this work can be seen as an example of how science writing and art for its own sake might build upon each other. The barriers are temporary, and will yield to the beauty that captivates the human heart.


Collected Haiku: When the Whales Left


When the Whales Left


Where the midnight Sun

And the lodgepole pine blow gently

The first sign was missed


Shallow seas are rich

Teeming with plankton and krill

Fifteen good years left


Methane clathrate melts

From permafrost and sea floor

Greenhouse gas anew


Ten thousand years now

The culture of a place grew

Rich again with wolf scat


The storm did not stop

And we sat inside for days

A white like bear teeth


The dogs are fat still

While the people starve back home

Who asked for spare food


ALCOA is now

Courting Greenland’s pristine

Cheap coal and free land


A coffin spills down

The thawing tundra slope

Now eating ice buds


Up Kivalina

The sea has taken your hand

An old pride laughs yet


With a vote of young

The stones are all that remains

Of ten thousand men


Not fifty years left

But only fifteen before

The ice will be gone


Bless the hunt people

Who sing with voices buried

Near the flesh they eat


At ice edge alone

The white glow arrests the Sun

Who dances through haze


Bowhead whales are now

Dead, swimming birds peck at flesh

Before the bright feast


Tall plants grow fast again

Now that summer comes early

As polar bears drown


Gwich’in caribou

Are not whales nor fish nor birds

Yet all are poisoned


Krill feed on plankton

That live just below the ice

When it’s gone, what then?


Narwhal through the ice

Slip as one being too deep

And fish explode up



Environmental old law

Yet climate changes


When Watson sunk ships

In Reykjavic that gray day

Starving insurance


Blood on the drum head

As the shaman reaches up

And then has bad news


At site 1002

Millions of acres await

The fall of DC


Protect the seal’s life

But not its habitat, true

News copy is old


‘They lie’ she says slow

And lets the idea sink

Like spilled oil on tundra


Mother and cubs play

Near the floe as bearded seals

Hunt pollock or hide


A spill each day now

In Prudhoe Bay while loons

Nest in Teshekpuk


Relationship is

The friend of all industry

Until you find oil


Prudhoe bay with trucks

Where do they get their diesel

When hope is frozen?


In Prince William Sound

Chemical dispersants last

Longer than salmon


The Stone Age did not

From lack of stones, end that day

Melting, melt Ice Age


Cordoba looks fine

The water and shore are clear

With oil and dead fish


Drill for oil here

In bear teeth you’ll find more of

Old age, joy and death


There is no way known

Trapped under ice still frozen

Why risk it, don’t drill


Skimming spilled oil then

How can you skim where ice is

Covering the spill


At the site of death

Where the Deepwater well was

Oiled sea floor is still


No Respirators

Workers cleaned oil from rocks, hope

Disabled, some dead


Frozen fish in oil

Dipping for the taste and smile

Hiding mercury


After years and years

Nothing has changed up here

Rich with PCBs


The gas flares are bright

But tiny particulates

Give asthma, no gift


As the Arctic warms

There is no sound, no call here

Shorebirds starve alone


Ocean like a heart

Ships drill oil through the ice, spilled

Oil will drift nine months


Mother’s milk suckled

Toxic waste from eating meat

That industry bit


If livers are shared

The most vulnerable folk

Eat industry waste


Birdsong with black flies

Amused by the richness call

Upstage the wet mud


To hold a large loon

Your hand protects your bright face

Like the melting ice


Here is one dollar

For each duck killed by oil spill

But food tastes hollow


The calendar laughs

The eels did not come this year

And now puffin starve


Arctic tern flies back

With ten thousand flies in beak

Food for wet nesting


Godwit at home now

By the tens, hundreds come

So few aloft again


Can bird spackle fall

And grow a forest from dung

Gizzards grind magic


Caribou in snow

In the thousands come to birth

New ice, new bird song


Bulls of the herd turn

Their racks in rutting crack each

Nature is at peace


Will caribou go

Where years ago, buffalo

Ghosts come again here


Hunters aim from boat

Splintered head as the herd cross

The beautiful flood


Caribou will calve

After two thousand miles pass

There is no food left


The tracks are not new

Seismic survey trucks were there

From the beginning


Caribou are all

Boats and clothes and any food

Yes, to keep me brown


Helicopters lift

Reindeer meat for Soviets

Dead shaman is gone


Alone in the world

There is no one, no cry yet

I hear caribou


Clicking tendons’ din

The caribou have come far

Lichen-filled stomachs


Trading hides for cash

A mutual way to live

For only a time


Spectacled eider

Dives to the deep bed and mud

Clams are not for sale


A cow with one leg

Can only dance with Shiva

As death is no dream


Drift nets in rivers

Can the salmon survive now

In Congress, close vote


The ocean surface

Flows to the Arctic as cold

Water stops sinking


Yellowstone Park votes

This land without people, no

Native subsistence


What food is there left

When the whales have left Arctic

And danced to the moon?



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Lopez, B. 2012. From Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 287–300. New York: Seven Stories.

Lord, N. 2012. From Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-changed North. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 39–52. New York: Seven Stories.

Magnason, A. A. 2012. Protecting the Apples but Chopping the Trees. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 107–121. New York: Seven Stories.

Miller, P. A. 2012. Broken Promises: The Reality of Big Oil in America’s Arctic. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 179–206. New York: Seven Stories.

Mowat, F. 2012. From People of the Deer. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 223–37. New York: Seven Stories.

Norris, D. J., & E. S. Aydil. 2012. Getting Moore from Solar Cells. Science, 338 (6107): 625–26. doi:10.1126/science.1230283

Ott, R. 2012. They Have No Ears. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee,  53–65. New York: Seven Stories.

Sakakibara, C. 2012. Dancing for the Whales: Kivgiq and Cultural Resilience among the People of the Whales. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by S. Banerjee, 335–45. New York: Seven Stories.

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Thank you to G. Archibald, S. Banerjee and A. Magnason, for permissions to quote from their works, and to Haymarket Books for permission to quote from C. Shearer, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story.

Published: July 2018
Daniel Helman

holds a PhD in sustainability education, and has training in pedagogy, science and the arts. He lectures in the Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions, Ton Duc Thang University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. See further,


Amitav Ghosh: Sea Routes, Flowers and Opium

by Jennifer Mackenzie

I realise … in hindsight … what has always interested me most: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions. (Ghosh interviewed by Kooria 2012, 10)

As a fiction writer, Amitav Ghosh has at his disposal a network of the regions, oceans and waterways which make up continental space, allowing his imagination to alight on themes ranging from the mythical to the ethical and political. Such a method is well-suited to present, at large, the havoc wrecked by colonialism and its environmental consequences.

In his recent book, The Great Derangement (2016), Amitav Ghosh focuses on some of the challenges of incorporating climate change into works of literary fiction. He looks at how the modern novel, with its focus on the everyday, tends to exclude the extraordinary from its dominant narrative. Linking the form to the philosophical concept of probability, he compares its emphasis on containment of experience with the earlier freer forms of fiction as seen in The Arabian Nights, The Journey to the West and The Decameron, which leap blithely ‘from one exceptional event to the other’. This analysis bears some resemblance to Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (2003), in which he traces the history of the novel in terms of the vicissitudes of European history. Ghosh expands this concept to a global awareness of climate and its relationship to colonialism and its depredations.

This essay will consider two prominent themes of Ghosh’s recent fiction: nature as a metaphysical and climactic force, seen most prominently in The Hungry Tide (2004), and the intimate connection between colonialism, the doctrine of Free Trade, and the seeds of the contemporary climate crisis, as depicted in The Ibis Trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (2009), River of Smoke (2012) and Flood of Fire (2015). Ghosh connects the capitalist desire to harness, and to somehow be free of, nature’s agency with the curious blindness towards the possibility of catastrophic climate events, both generally and by extension in the development of exposed sites. This can be seen in cases such as the failed attempt in the nineteenth century to establish a port at Canning, near Kolkata, where storm warnings were ignored, the establishment of Mumbai on exposed reclaimed land, and the development of areas in the Nicobars devastated during the 2005 tsunami.

The Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, an area dominated by its waterways and bordered by mangrove swamps and small village settlements whose inhabitants eke out a precarious existence, mainly through fishing. The area is critically prone to flooding and storms, and is in constant flux: ‘… here, in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life: rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days …mangroves can recolonise a denuded island in ten to fifteen years’ (THT 224).  The villagers share this environment with wild animals, including tigers and crocodiles, and are at high risk of being taken by them. In comparison to the structural complexity of the Trilogy, the narrative here is relatively straight-forward, with a small number of characters providing a variety of stories and timelines. There are three major characters: Fokir, a boatman with a preternatural sense of his environment; Piya, a cetologist who comes to the area specifically to study the relatively unknown and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin; and Kanai, a multilingual resident of Delhi, who runs a successful translation bureau. Kanai, who visited the area as a child, has come at the invitation of his aunt, whose late husband has left a diary which he had requested his nephew read. This diary allows Ghosh to insert extracts from it (and a degree of polemic) into the narrative, providing a geo-political history of the area, including an account of an actual event, the Marichjhapi massacre of displaced persons in 1979, under the auspices of the Bengali Government.

While Ghosh’s evocation of place is exceptionally vivid, however, he extends the range of the novel from beyond the naturalistic by presenting the river, the canals, and the Sundarbans in general, as a metaphysical and linguistic force generating their own narrative: ‘ … the mudbanks of the tide country are shaped not only by rivers of silt, but also by rivers of language. Bengali, English, Arabic, Hindi, Arakanese and who knows what else? Flowing into each other they create a proliferation of small worlds that hang suspended in the flow’ (THT 247), and in a more personal note in The Great Derangement he recalls:

To this day I think of the circumstances [the flooding of their village] that have shaped my life, I remember the elemental force that untethered my ancestors from their homeland and launched them on the series of journeys that preceded, and made possible, my own travels. When I look into my own past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, ‘Do you recognise me, wherever you are?’ (TGD 4)

In The Hungry Tide, Fokir reads the river, alert to its proclivities, and he is able to direct Piya to particular places where the dolphins gather, and they are able to work in tandem, with Piya using sophisticated sonar equipment and Fokir catching crabs with a makeshift line:

At the start she thought they might end up disrupting each other’s work … but … the stops required for the laying of the line seemed to be ideally timed for the taking of soundings. … the line … keeping the boat on a straight and unvarying track …

It was surprising enough that their jobs had not provided to be utterly incompatible – especially considering that one of the tasks required the input of geostationary satellites while the other depended on bits of sharkbone and broken tile. (THT 140)

Fokir’s skills however are not merely practical. His knowledge of oral texts expand the novel’s narrative to encompass the mythical and folk tales of origin which include animist, Islamic and Hindu elements. The impact of storms on the region and its waterways is incorporated into this oral history, and is seen as having a narrative which can be read, felt and acted upon by creatures (both animal and human) which have this knowledge. As in The Great Derangement, which also includes a discussion of how climate change may affect their location and severity, Ghosh refers to the history of storms, and their role in re-making the environment. In addition, Ghosh appears to harness storm as image into his own creative process, as it articulates the agency of nature and of animals, and that writing itself can be made and unmade by these forces. In a scene early in The Hungry Tide, when Kanai is ensconced in his aunt’s guest house, the electricity goes out, and he hears a sound, unfamiliar to him, the distant roar of a tiger. ‘The echo had carried across the water for such a distance that it would have been inaudible if the generator had been on … Small as it was, every other sound seemed to wither for an instant, only to be followed by a loud and furious outbreak of disquiet … a frenzy of barking, from all over the island’ (THT 154).

He learns that bagh is a word that should never be spoken, as it would encourage the presence of the animal. There is a sense that the jungle and the tiger are one, and that cohabitation with humans is barely possible. If a word can carry such a force, the river has no trouble in dissolving what is written of it into its current, as can be seen when Kanai attempts to carry his uncle’s manuscript out of the flood, only for him to be knocked over and see the text disappear into the flow.

Ghosh mentions that he found the writing of the storm in the concluding section of the novel, during which one of the protagonists dies, to be very difficult. Published in December 2004, the passages prefigure the Tsunami of 2005 in their precise detail. Piya is surprised by the unusual behaviour of the dolphins she was observing: ‘they were surfacing with unusual frequency, with barely a minute or two separating their exhalations’ (THT 366), and as her binoculars tilted to the south-east, she saw that at the horizon the sky ‘had acquired a peculiar, steel-grey glow’ (THT 367). By the time they reached the shore ‘the gale was blowing so hard that it seemed to be holding the surface of the water at an incline: it was as if the water had been mounded into a sloping ram that reached well past the island’s banks’ (THT 377). Before long

the noise of the storm deepened and another roar made itself heard, over the rumbling din of the gale: a noise like that of a cascading waterfall. … It was as if a city block had suddenly begun to move: the river was like pavement, lying at its feet, while its crest reared high above, dwarfing the tallest trees. It was a tidal wave, sweeping in from the sea; everything in its path disappeared as it came thundering towards them. (THT 383)

On assignment in the Nicobars after the tsunami, Ghosh observes that in Malacca ‘of the houses only the floors were left, and here and there the stump of a wall … [coconut palms] … stood serenely over the rubble, their fronds waving gently in the breeze that was blowing in from the sparkling sun-drenched sea.’ (TGD 34)

The Ibis Trilogy

In comparison, The Ibis Trilogy presents a large number of characters and multiple narratives. Characters are introduced, some returning to the narrative in later episodes, or dropping out altogether. Ghosh has some interesting ways of refreshing his reader’s memory of the earlier action (there was a 3 year gap between the books). For example, in the second novel, River of Smoke (2012), the introductory section includes images of the protagonists in a shrine in Mauritius from the earlier Sea of Poppies (2009).

The writer employs the devices of coincidence, a sense of fate, and sheer improbability in ways that suggests magical realism, in addition to the example of ancient and pre-nineteenth century story-telling. In Sea of Poppies, the Ibis, which is about to be fitted out as an opium carrier, takes one single voyage carrying both indentured labourers and prisoners on a journey to Mauritius, a journey encompassing terrifying storms, horrific living conditions for the above, and staggering amounts of brutality and violence. The background to this journey connects British opium traders, whimsical botanists, and impoverished peasants who had been compelled to grow poppies – to the detriment of their well-being as their ability to grow food crops is barely existent – and/or work in the Ghazipur opium factory:

In a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals, for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers … [travelling down the Ganga] hundreds of impoverished transients … drawn from their villagers by the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside: lands that had once provided sustenance were now swamped by the rising tide of poppies, food was so hard to come by that people were glad to lick the leaves in which offerings were made at temples. (SP 213)

The Ghazipur factory still exists, now producing pharmaceutical products, but according to a report in The Times of India in May 2017, similar environmental issues still prevail. Sedated monkeys are still a feature of the plant, and this year it was closed down for several months due to its lack of compliance with effluent guidelines, and lack of fresh water monitoring. It was also described as being ‘full of weeds and infested with snakes’ (Singh 2017).

While the protagonists in Sea of Poppies bring an enormous energy to the narrative with their multi-ethnicity, initiative in the face of overwhelming odds, humour, along with scenes of debauchery suited to the ribaldry of earlier narrative styles, the most innovative aspect of the story is undoubtedly language itself. Ghosh employs a ‘lascar’ tongue, a democratic mode of communication developed from a range of languages present on or about the continent for hundreds of years. ‘Lascar’ portrays flexibility, variety, as well as being a rich source of humour. Such language allows Ghosh to develop an interweaving over land and sea, which suggests a world larger than ethnicity, or of geographical demarcations of belonging, while still acknowledging those boundaries. The former raja, Neel, who is convicted of forgery becomes both record keeper, and through his multi-lingual abilities, the voice of solace for those on the Ibis, as they leave their homes forever, and pass out of the mouth of the Ganga, and into the unknown ocean, the kalapani, the Black Water.

The focus of the second part of the trilogy, River of Smoke, turns away from India and centres on China, most particularly on the foreign enclave in Canton, Fanqui-town, a network of residences, offices and godowns. The majority of the trading houses deal in opium. Although diverse in background, the British traders are the most prominent, and are enthusiastic supporters of the idea of Free Trade, a doctrine which enables its supporters to clothe self-interest in an abundant amount of humbug. Church and state are aligned in this enterprise, and missionaries with an eye to proselytising attach themselves to the trade with alacrity.

While countries in the West were purchasing large quantities of Chinese ceramics, exotic plants, and silks, the self-contained Chinese displayed an indifference to reciprocation. The balance of trade became a pressing issue for the colonial project, and resistance to the disastrous results of opium trading led ultimately to the Opium Wars, as outlined in River of Smoke (2012) and Flood of Fire (2015), the establishment of Hong Kong under the British Flag, as well as the establishment of foreign concession ports around China.

Ghosh employs a different technique in River of Smoke to that of Sea of Poppies. Drama and swashbuckling commotion subside somewhat, with the writer creating the environment of the foreign enclave with the detailed eye of the miniaturist. The narrative could be seen to replicate the work of the painter, Robin Chinnery, who finds the norms of Western painting inadequate to the task, and he begins to consider the possibilities of the scroll as used in Chinese painting. River of Smoke details the town, then moves to the surrounding islands and waterways, with a description of the elaborate gardens and homes of the wealthy Chinese inhabitants, thus setting up a discrete, though subtly connected world.

Botany and searching for new floral species provide a rather innocent and refreshing counterpoint to the base motives and criminality of the opium trade. The botanist Penrose, with the assistance of Paulette, who comes from a long line of botanists, decide to set up a nursery on Hong Kong, a site for the lucrative trade in flowers heading for Western gardens. When the multi-lingual Neel enters the world of the Chinese printer, Compton, with whom he eventually joins forces, he takes note of a beautiful flowering cherry tree in the courtyard; it appears as emblematic of a better world.

The role of the botanical is as it happens a complex one. Ghosh connects some of his protagonists to historical figures engaged in the global search for flora. In Sea of Poppies, Paulette, like her imagined great-aunt, Jeanne Baret, who voyaged with Bougainville, dons men’s garb so that she can sail on the Ibis with an all-male crew. She has inherited her late father’s love of plants and gardening, and her deep imagination leaves her captivatingly open to experience and adaptability. When the Ibis sails through the Sundarbans  on the way to Mauritius, ‘she was glad to seize every opportunity to gaze at the river’s mangrove-cloaked shores … Some of [her] happiest memories was helping her father catalogue the flora of this forest.’ (SP 396)

In River of Smoke, Paulette becomes an assistant to the trader in plants, Frederick ‘Fitcher’ Penrose. He had in fact learned his trade from his connection with Sir Joseph Banks, and the Kew Botanical Gardens. Banks, accompanying botanist on Cook’s voyage to Australia, was a passionate advocate not only for British settlement there, but for a global transformation through the dissemination of flora. The value of the opium trade was huge, but trade in plants, including tea, amounted to one-tenth of British exports. On board the Redruth, Penrose imported American plants into China, and in exchange, Chinese plants into Britain: ‘He had been careful to select varieties that were likely to prove hardy in Britain, and several of his introductions had quickly become established in English gardens: two varieties of wisteria, a seductive new lily, a fine azalea bush, an unusual primrose, a lustrous camellia and much else.’ (RS 109)

In a striking image for exchange and connection across continents, forced or otherwise, in the abandoned Botanical Gardens in Mauritius, flora creates its own Babel out of its very abandonment:

Where once there had been orderly, well-spaced trees and broad, picturesque vistas, there was now a wild and tangled muddle of greenery.  … the untrimmed crowns of the garden’s trees had become so dense that the grounds beneath, with their flower-beds and flag-stoned pathways, were shrouded in darkness; … This was no primeval jungle, for no ordinary wilderness would contain such a proliferation of species, from different continents. In nature there existed no forest where African creepers were at war with Chinese trees, nor one where Indian shrubs and Brazilian vines were locked in a mortal embrace. This was a work of Man, a botanical Babel. (RS 39)

As the painter Robin Chinnery writes in a letter to Paulette, describing his failed attempt to smuggle Penrose’s plants into Canton at the time of the opium embargo, ‘are [flowers and opium] not perhaps a means to a kind of intoxication? Could it not even be said that one leads to the other? Certainly there would be no opium without flowers – and what else do dragon-chasers dream but of gardens of unearthly delight?’ (RS 528)

When business was flourishing, camaraderie between the traders was strong, but with the edict from the Chinese emperor forbidding the importation of opium, significant fissures in the relationships begin to appear. While the hard-nosed Free Traders appear to be completely devoid of ethics, the Parsee trader from Bombay, Barham, is a more complex case. Less venal than his fellow traders, he has viewed his life as a successful entrepreneur as being due to fate, which had successfully harnessed his abilities, and his self-worth as being related to the good he has done his family and community.

As Ghosh discusses in The Great Derangement, for the colonisers, Free Trade worked in tandem with protectionism, with such a tactic virtually eliminating local expertise in India, as with ship building. The novelist introduces this idea in River of Smoke explicitly though the voice of Barham. Barham’s father-in-law could build different types of ships

better and cheaper in Bombay, than they could in Portsmouth and Liverpool – and with all the latest technical equipment too. And when the shipbuilders of England realised this, what do you think happened? They talk of Free Trade when it suits them – but they make sure the rules changed so that the Company and the Royal Navy could no longer order ships from us. (RS 426)

Barham sees this situation as an opportunity for him. In a strange scene early in the novel, which recounts a visit he made to the West, his boat stops at St Helena, and he happens to meet the exiled Napoleon. Napoleon quizzes Barham about the opium trade, and in a manner which is in some way the ethical key to these novels. Bahram says to him, ‘Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to alter its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind’. Napoleon replies, ‘But a man may die, may he not, because he sails upon the wind.’ (RS 185). Especially when the wind’s direction is set up for him to fail, and the river itself is a river of smoke.

During the climactic scenes in Flood of Fire, most of the characters in The Ibis Trilogy have made their way by sea in boats of various kinds, to the waterways of Canton, and the conflagration of the British blockade. Some do not survive, some like Zachary are corrupted by the Opium trade. The Chinese have acquired a British-built steamship, the Cambridge. Decorated with pennants, flags and paper lanterns, it is blown out of the water. Paulette finds the nursery that she and Penrose had set up on isolated land is now ‘close to hamlets’ as ‘swarms of boats [with people from Guangdong] begin to drift into the bay’ (FF 480). The enigmatic Ibis voyager, Baboo Nob Kissin, hails the English as ‘the instruments of the gods’ as they initiate a time of greed, of ‘the great devouring’ of earth, air and sky (FF 509). The Free Traders look to their balance sheets.  Hong Kong becomes a British territory and a new era takes form in the cross-currents.


This essay was developed from a paper given at the Literary Environments conference in July at Griffith University.


Ghosh, Amitav. 2004. The Hungry Tide. HarperCollins. (THT)

—.  2009. Sea of Poppies. John Murray. (SP)

—. 2012. River of Smoke. John Murray. (RS)

—. 2015. Flood of Fire. John Murray. (FF)

—. 2016. The Great Derangement. The University of Chicago Press. (TGD)

Kooria, Mahmood. 2012. Between the Walls of Archives and Horizons of the Imagination: An Interview with Amitav GhoshItinerario 36, no. 3 (December): 7–18.

Singh, Binay. 2017. Country’s biggest, oldest opium factory shut. The Times of India (May 4).

Published: January 2018
Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie’s most recent work is Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012). Her ‘Map/Feet’ should see the light of day soon, and she is currently working on a series of essays on Asia-Pacific writing, ‘Writing the Continent’, plus a new Indonesia-focused poetry project.


Poplars Stripped Bare: Mental Health and other Catastrophes in the Poetry of Grace Perry

by Phillip Hall

I shake like poplar

a scream showers dry leaves

down the night sky

(Perry 1980, 31)

James Tulip, the Sydney University academic and generous supporter of Australian poetry, writes in a review of Grace Perry’s second book, Frozen Section: ‘At a time when Australian poetry is booming, and indeed seems on the point of exploding, [Perry] is leading the field not merely in production herself but in producing other poets as well … when the time comes for a history of poetry in the 1960s to be written, her place in the changing climate of opinion and taste will be a key one’ (Tulip 1968). Regrettably, by the time of Perry’s death in 1987 (when she passed away by suicide), this prediction by Tulip had not come to pass. Perry’s poetry and astute editorial / publishing ventures had become overlooked and devalued. She continues to be ignored today. Her poetry is out of print. She is not included in the online Australian Poetry Library and there is very little academic interest in her work. Perhaps now is the time to rediscover the voice of this dynamically forthright and leading mid-twentieth century poet and publisher.

One scholar who researched the artistic career of Grace Perry is Dot Jensen. In 1995 she was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney for her thesis entitled ‘Grace Perry: Australian poet and publisher, her dynamic role in the 1960s and 1970s’ (unfortunately this thesis has not been published or digitised). Jensen (2016) also wrote the entry on Perry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. She documents Perry’s work as editor of Poetry Magazine from 1962-1964, and the rift that saw her leave that journal and establish her own South Head Press where she published collections of poetry and essays as well as the journal Poetry Australia (edited by Perry from 1964 until 1987 and co-edited, at various times, by Les Murray and John Millett). Perry was forceful in her support of new voices and was the first to publish books by such poets as Bruce Beaver, Rodney Hall, John Millett, Craig Powell, Norman Talbot, John Tranter and Meredith Wattison; she also published an early collection by Jennifer Maiden. Along with supporting other poets, Perry published eight collections of her own. Another scholar, Lawrence Bourke writes that Perry ‘was a person of prodigious enthusiasm and vitality [who] found time not only to be a poet and physician but also to chase (and catch) sponsors for poetry prizes, organise poetry workshops and edit a poetry periodical’ (1992, 12). Bourke comments that Perry’s Poetry Australia ‘became one of the most important poetry periodicals in Australia’ (1992, 12).

In her publishing ventures, and in her own creative writing, Perry was a leading presence standing apart from the traditionalist regard for formal line and classical modes (as represented by such contemporaries as James McAuley and A.D. Hope) and in turning to American poetry (especially to William Carlos Williams) for new models of expression. Perry, for example, once advised the young John Tranter: ‘you should really think of going back and reading William Carlos Williams again, he’s really the best example you can have as a poet’ (Tranter 2000). Much has been made of Perry’s forceful and independent personality in advocating for this new writing. Bruce Beaver, for example, while expressing much admiration for Perry also agrees with John Tranter that she was utterly independent: ‘You couldn’t cross swords with her unless you were prepared to get wounded. And she was always ready to have a tussle with anybody, and she was argumentative by nature’ (Tranter 2016). While expressing admiration for Perry’s book, Black Swans at Berrima (1972), Beaver criticises Perry’s earlier work as being ‘too strident’; he agrees with Tranter that Perry was a ‘second rate’ poetic talent (Tranter 2016). Les Murray worked with Perry at her journal Poetry Australia in the late 1960s and 1970s before he too had a personal disagreement with her. Murray believes that the origins of this conflict were Perry’s ‘jealousy’ of him and her ‘insecurity’ concerning his transformation of her journal ‘beyond her control, and more importantly beyond her talent’ (Alexander 2000, 195). Subsequently he has also been quoted as judging Perry’s talent to be second rate:

The peculiarity of Grace was that she had two voices. She had a kind of out-going extrovert charm and good humour and bounding energy that was expressed in one voice, and occasionally, mostly at poetry readings, when she read her poetry, there was a strange, lost-little-girl voice that she used to read in … that was the personality that wrote her poems (Alexander 2000, 194-5).

It is timely to move beyond gender binaries of male (strong, influential, seminal) and female (shrill, strident, argumentative), and to separate assessments of Perry’s personality from her poetic output. Ronald Dunlop argues, for example, that ‘Grace Perry’s poems are occasional: responses to a given moment, a given experience, hammered out hot, scarcely given time to cool before being put on paper’ (2016, online). Such an approach to poetic craft sounds remarkably contemporary and deserving of renewed assessment.

Considering the importance of William Carlos Williams on the development of avant-garde poetry in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s, Livio Dobrez writes:

The Williams which attracted Australian poets was probably by and large not the complex Williams seen through post-Williams eyes (Robert Duncan, for example), but the Williams who saw things simply and saw them anew, less the author of Paterson … than of the short pieces embodying, in the spirit of “no ideas but in things”, the sharp concreteness of spontaneous perception. This Williams, the poet of the red wheelbarrow, the plums in the icebox, the crumpled sheet of brown paper on the road, was amenable to the sixty-eighters’ desire to approach experience – the poem included – as it were head on (1990, 73).

Unfortunately, in illustrating this influence, he confines his attention to male poets: Michael Dransfield, John Forbes, Kris Hemensley, Nigel Roberts and Richard Tipping (Dobrez 1990, 73-74). It is arguable, however, that none did more than Grace Perry – in her publishing ventures and in her writing – to see that it was the American model – especially Williams – which set the pace for radically transforming Australian poetry.

Perry was poet / publisher and medical practitioner. In her early poetry she often explored this medical experience with all the impressionistic precision of William Carlos Williams. Jensen (2016) notes that these poems contained medical imagery that, to some readers in the 1960s, was quite ‘graphic’ and ‘shocking’. That these early poems did alarm some is evidence of how original Perry’s imagery and poetic approach were. In ‘Aneurysm’, Perry personifies the condition of a brain aneurysm in a most dramatic, and witty, exploration of human frailty:

Do you hear me hammering, hammering,

in the cave behind your inattentive eyes?

Go your way. Walk in the sun, and sing,

unaware my hidden horror lies

deep in the woven pathways of your brain

where vessels sinuous and slender keep

their tortuous, continual pulsation.

My red balloon hums, ominous in sleep,

dreaming the inevitable explosion,

in rising anger or in ecstasy,

when I shall sing the song to drown all singing;

I am your end, your unfuturity.

Feel insinuating rustles of distension,

the thrust, the hiss, the shiver and the tear

of penetrating fiery insistence.

But you rush onward, shouting, unaware

I shall destroy these writhing convolutions

sluicing the ordered furrows of your dreams,

ploughing across a field of flooded crimson

until you hold your head and your screams.

You do not hear the warning I am humming.

Go your way. Walk in the sun, and sing.

My climax brings unheralded eruption.

I loose my flame in blood red blossoming.

I am the final light, the flash of wings,

a golden sunburst in your aching head

as broken stars fall, spinning into darkness

and unwilling silence creeps upon the dead.

(1963, 46)

Perry juxtaposes the use of traditional quatrains and rhyming schemes with an original and dramatic personification of a serious medical condition, all the while maintaining a subtly comic tone. The final confluence of death, that traditional bearer of ‘eternity’, with cosmic imagery and the ‘flash of wings’ is cleverly undercut by a ‘golden sunburst’ and ‘broken stars … spinning into darkness’ as ‘unwilling silence creeps upon the dead’ – this is not the evangelical’s religious ecstasy but a very modern and scientific understanding of the materiality of life.

Perry also interrogates aspects of women’s health, sensitively writing of infertility and miscarriage. In ‘Centennial Park’, she subtly, and non-judgmentally, alludes to abortion in a way that challenges medical ethics and the role of the medical practitioner:

I stand accused that I have glimpsed

the message on the uncurled leaf,

and spied on folded lilies drifting

secret waterways of sleep.

I listened when the red-gum shook

flocks of stars from blossomed hair

while wind-tattered paperbark

washed nervous fingers in despair,

leaning over sword-crossed grass,

trailing thin hands upon the lake

continually, to remove

indelible and ancient stains.

I stand accused, for I have seen

my dim reflection in her grief;

for me the lilies may not fold

and secret water shall not sleep.

(1963, 51)

I find this poem unforgettable: those delicate allusions to Ophelia and Lady Macbeth relocated to Sydney’s Centennial Park and the empathy for the complexity of loss. Perry continues with this fraught subject matter in ‘Ovarian’, where the poem moves from ‘the pressure of imprisoned sea / revealing fimbriated arms / of resilient anemones / rooted where new life begins’, a kind of ‘hopeless ovulation’, to ‘the filamentous flesh / of this grotesque gestation / exploding macerated walls’ and ‘the crumbling honeycomb / of silently eroding bone’ (1963, 47).

Dramatic poems such as ‘Aneurysm’, ‘Centennial Park’ and ‘Ovarian’, written with traditional punctuation and regular stanza structures and rhyming schemes, are more typical of Perry’s early poetry. In her mature work, Perry moves in a more experimental direction, as she employs unpunctuated free-forms with a greater stress on spontaneity, even embracing a degree of irrationality as part of her imagist technique. This movement follows the example of William Carlos Williams. As James Scully writes, for Williams ‘ready-made forms were sinister cookie cutters impressed on the daily flux’ (1966, 69); he quotes Williams: ‘I was sick to my very pit with the order that cuts off the crab’s feelers to make it fit into the box’ (1966, 69). In describing this new movement in poetry – to which Perry belonged both as poet and publisher – Chris Wallace-Crabbe observes:

This verse is extremely free, the syntax is commonplace … Moreover, the verse follows no rational logic but that of the concurrence of observed images, images which are set down with a distinct immediate vividness (Wallace-Crabbe, cited by McAuley 1975, 304).

In this Williams’ tradition, Perry is a lyrical imagist who finds in medicine and the natural world the imagery she needs to explore her human concerns. At the same time, Perry is a poet who locates the human as part of nature (as complex biological system) and not as separate, or above, nature. She draws much of her imagery from the natural world of the rural Southern Highlands of NSW where she lived on a cattle and sheep stud from the late 1960s until her death. In Perry’s poetical work, the seasons of winter and autumn, the red and golden leaves of poplar trees, granite and limestone, cattle and water birds are all celebrated. They are praised, however, in order to explore her human concerns. Perry writes few poems of pure praise for the natural world. Nor does she write many poems that explore the question of dwelling. A poem such as ‘Michael’ (Perry 1984, 15), concerned with the practice of selling male calves to the slaughter yard as ‘vealers’, is an exception. Perry is an imagist, and the natural environment is the largest source of that imagery, but her subjects are the human concerns of mental health, love, regret, loss, bereavement and what is unattainable. Her fourth book, Black Swans at Berrima (1972), is a collection of around one hundred untitled lyrics that explore her specific rural location in just this way. The effect of this poetics of place is well described by Perry herself:

Those who read with the eye only

ignore the river

the raft scream

bumping in the churning dark

the jolt

the journey


to image

to the wider vision

the poem neither

shakes off significance

stepping out of associations and ambience

like wet clothes

nor calms the torrent with abundant gestures

offering anchorage in a harbour

where we are loved and known

downstream the continual cataract roar

windlashed spray

the past

the power

the poet magnifies the reverberation

the desperate struggle

the animal curving backward and inward

and no word

no safe bridge over

intention     meaning     action     outcome

wet fur nudges the bank

climbs out


nose and tongue acknowledge

we have lived here

we have come home

(1972, 15)

So this is poetry that seeks to understand ‘place’ as ‘home’ but this desire is not born out of a sense of proprietorial entitlement. Perry is sensitive to the reality of risk and the stress of the uncontrollable. Depression scarring is one cost of living in this complicated and unpredictable world. There is no escape from colliding with the ‘churning dark’ and there is ‘downstream the continual cataract roar’. The scrap is ‘desperate’ but also rewarding. As Jensen (2016) argues: ‘[In Perry’s poetry] repetitions of sounds, words, themes, and phrases are juxtaposed in symphonic harmonies of language that create emotional highs and lows to express the paradoxes of vision and a move towards a sense of inner harmony’. Therefore, Perry continues to find imagery in the breakthroughs of biology and physics, to explore the human capacity for conflict and denial:

the monk is gone from the monastery garden

the double helix threads the beads of prayer …

daily we breathe the toxic vapour and go blue

from the ice age we are dubious survivors

a generation wandering from Hiroshima

to the surface of the moon …

(1972, 17)

The comparison of nuclear scientists with the high priests of a closed order and the location of imagery in twentieth-century science to interrogate the Cold War’s capacity for nuclear catastrophe is perhaps not all that novel, but it is a good example of Perry’s vivid and dramatic use of language. She is sensitive to frailty and the incapacity of material wealth to insure against emotional and psychic wounds:

always the emptiness

the cavity

the hollow corpse hacked open like a tree

blade and skin …

the stones here

are veined with blood …

(Perry 1972, 56)

In the Southern Highlands of NSW the depths of winter are a seasonal shadow like the ‘fleece knotted on barbed wire’, when ‘three gaunt horses / huddled faces windward / unable to rise again and run’ and ‘the last stallion’ ponders ‘his lost reflection’. Poignantly, ‘the brown hills also shiver / and are cold’ (1972, 72). Perry is a winter poet, who sees in the loss of summer, vulnerability to mental health challenges and a thorny requirement for intimacy. For her, mental health is often something difficult to attain, an intractable problem, from which there are no easy reconciliations. Her portrayal of this is far from melodramatic as she documents decline and stubborn resignation: ‘We show ourselves to one another / partially and in secret / forgetting how much is already gone / how much the body wears the winter mask’ (Perry 1972, 81).

This exploration of an imagism, located in the natural world, to explore decline and the incapacity of humans to achieve meaningful and generous intimacy is direct and dramatic. While Perry can find great beauty in the natural world, as a window into the human psychic condition, she sees not ‘next year’s petals crumbled in the buds / that flourish unreleased’ but ‘shrivelled wings / the young oak / is unable to let go’. In the splendour of the garden she does not see hope or beneficence but rather subterfuge and subdued fellowship. That which is unobtainable is manifest in summer drought and burn, giving way to fragility, like moths, as a ‘slow smouldering’ (Perry 1972, 88).

The image of the hearth does not weaken the hold of winter because:

Even in the burning

I am cold

the poem hardens like a flower in ice

the eaves are wreathed in icicles

the grass is white haired overnight

(1972, 89)

Perry’s imagism connects such disparate elements in ways that are visually dramatic and expressive of a menacing tone. This exploration of fractious emotional interiors is continued in her later books. In Berrima Winter (1974) she writes of parting as a shrivelling and dying, but:

a little

and a little




and in time sloughs off …

(1974, 40).

What is left is a ‘line of scar’ (1974, 40). A vivid starkness exists in the way Perry evokes mental health decline and the struggle to reconcile a healthy ‘inner life’ with a Cold War’s propensity for conflict and threat. Later she seems resigned, like Ophelia, to the transitory exquisiteness of death – ‘My comfort     my darkness’, in a poem where the short broken lines and the spaces between words create a tone of uncertainty and vulnerability (1974, 61).

Perry knows the psychological tragedy of the besieged, where

advancing through glass

upon my small warm shell

my hand becoming transparent

I feel the wall give way …

only to find that

the fire mountain

long soothed under the sea

erupts again

reversing the transmutation

so that the poet finds herself ‘again / alone / at the beginning’  (1974, 74).

In bearing witness to the scarring of depression, Perry might feel utterly alone but her struggle is not without consolation; she writes of the growth of  ‘resurrection / grass / snaking under rock ledges / infiltrating strap leaves of jonquils’ (1974, 108). While she writes of ‘quiet music’, a lively and impulsive energy exists in the way Perry surprises with imagery suggestive of the dynamism of spring in a region well known for its winter cold. So, too, ‘the stones surprise’ with ‘chancels of freesia / chanting matins in crevices’ (1974, 108).

With Snow in Summer (1980) Perry continues to juxtapose her preoccupation with winter (decline and the struggle for mental health) and summer (the renewal of spring given way to bushfire and the paradox of ‘snow in summer’). In seventy untitled imagist lyrics are the heat and fury of passion but also the retreat into something cold, pure and white:

Now in full leaf poplar


green tipped gold

extremities begin to die

the bonewhite shaft

uncurves upwards

tree to my sky

(1980, 8)

Perry scatters her lines in a way suggestive of fragmented and besieged psychological states. In the paradoxes of the natural world she sees uncertainty, fragility and the tenuous chance of renewal: ‘earth opening / I lift     I stretch / I bud gently upwards’ (1980, 17).

In her preoccupation with juxtaposition there can be a surrealist automatism where the natural world is celebrated for its obliquely connected fizz of imagery: ‘ You make a cup of tea / to calm the storm     lock up the animals’, and later in the same poem: ‘I hang in the air a dress in the poplar tree / a clean dress drying where you have walked in me’ (1980, 29). For Dunlop (2016), in such poems:

… image tumbles over image till, like colours on a spinning wheel they fuse to present a whole apprehended in the imagination even if sometimes they baffle the mind. Her method has much in common with the painter … Conventional guidelines of logic and syntax take a subordinate place as the poem, exploiting to the full Perry’s rich resources in language responds to the quick shifts of her mind.

A nocturnal conjuring of spectral cold and fog can leave trees ‘shaking and wailing’ while resolve is cruelly wavering:

Every night

you are

bird to my forest


moonringed darkness

soft bell

muffled among mountains of leaves

ghost etchings over the water

casting no shadow

yet substance

warm bird beating within me

inarticulate dreambody

lulled in high branches

soon enough sunrise and wind

the leaves shaking and wailing

a wild cry

shivering land and lake

a great opening of wings

and my hands torn apart

(1980, 30)

So ‘image tumbles over image’ to establish an ominous tone without descending into melodrama. In the final couplet, ‘a great opening of wings’ which might have suggested benevolence is skilfully undercut by the image of the ‘hands torn apart’. Smouldering vestiges of love are a granite chiselled eyrie:

The body of my beloved

is granite

rising sheer

out of riverbed

lichen stained

upholding burnt out trees

against the sky

caved and secret

is the body of my beloved

skull holes smouldering

where the eagles fly

(1980, 54)

Perry’s final book, Be Kind To Animals (1984) has a new focus on the ethics of modern farming practices and animal welfare but also contains the suite of poems called ‘Thunderegg’ (17-30). This opens with ‘Blackwattle’ and the expression of the classic Perry theme that life is like an ‘old riverbed’. Once you have ‘crossed to the far bank’ there will soon ‘be no sign’ of your presence as ‘each day fresh stars and signals / archive night animals’ and ‘grass crests / blackwattle lace // silent as a snowfield / over my body’ (1984, 17). The suite continues in ‘Drought’, not surprisingly a common preoccupation in Australian poetry. In Perry’s treatment: ‘at last they say the word / after long weeks’ when ‘black snakes warm red bellies / in hotfingered sand’ and ‘roofiron guncracks drive out the last starlings’ as ‘the house a grey blister about to burst’. The poem concludes with the search for survival, as the poet ‘looks for language      sunblind’ (1984, 18).

In ‘Eidolon Valley’, Perry juxtaposes life against the hard surrounds of limestone, blackberry brambles and barbed wire as ‘this year regrowth has beaten me / too old to match myself against that force’ (1984, 19). ‘Bundanoon’ exemplifies how tightly controlled Perry’s free verse is by the sound of her words and their spoken rhythms, well illustrated in the poem’s opening stanza:

The gorge slips away under firetrail and tall bendingdown

cliffs and rain lines written into the earth where another

world’s ambiguity will fail in the sheer fall of rock as I

lie in idleness and shadow and die in the sight of a hawk

at the gates of the skimming free and wide as I love you

(1984, 21).

In ‘Bushfire’ (22), ‘After fire’ (22) and ‘Morning’ (23), Perry explores wild bush fire as that seemingly uncontrollable and destructive natural force leaving ‘earth burnt out’. Even here the hope for regeneration will eventually win out as ‘at last the fire is out’ and:

The sun comes down

to walk among ruins

a woman combing long hair after love

The possibility of love, but the acceptance of how difficult it is to hold on to is beautifully captured in ‘Song’ (24), where Perry shows her ability to use more traditional measures and rhymes:

When valleys were harbours

under green skies

my sailor was silver

the world in his eyes

The lighthouse no longer

guides great ships home

my lover shines silver

under smooth stone

The first stanza links the open horizons of young love by rhyming ‘skies’ and ‘eyes’; this idealism is then dramatically undercut in the second stanza by joining ‘home’ and ‘stone’ and the allusion to a graveside. The apparent simplicity of this short lyric belies its understated achievement.

The suite concludes with ‘Holograph’ (30), in which Perry gives voice to her pen which addresses the poet:

And still I talk to you

and you say nothing

let me be your word in your hand

black rivered      hard

write me

against crisp white sheets

(1984, 30)

Not only does Be Kind To Animals locate in the natural world the imagery needed to explore its human concerns, but the collection also begins an interrogation of pastoral and the ethics involved in modern farming practises. As Jensen (2016) argues: ‘the effect [of Perry’s final book] is a postmodern pastoral in which unhappy bulls roar in the paddock made irrelevant by the use of artificial insemination’. The book opens with ‘Eros in Moss Vale’ where  ‘sure of himself’ ‘that tame bull knows where he is going … to join the whitefaced females’; its final lines startle:

those out of season

not understanding

suffer the hammering of heated sisters

one by one he soothes them

rocking them

gunshot sunshine

in the dark places

(1984, 4)

This sympathetic approach continues in ‘Pieta’ where ‘the calf shivers’ and ‘she offers consolation / rough tongue / bodywall / broadside to storm’ and the ‘two forms’ are ‘one outline / mother and child’:


as a fountain bronze

(1984, 9)

Perry repeatedly searches for consolation: here amidst the fenced-in domesticity and freezing weather is a moment of solace as ‘the calf shivers / nuzzling thick fingers / to let down warmth’. The image of transient succour is as monumental ‘as a fountain bronze’. In ‘Michael’ Perry bears witness to the male born ‘out of season’ on the dairy farm leaving Perry to pray: ‘O Eidolon / let the fall be daughters’. With pathos Perry writes:

already the calf

suffered his first rejection

the bulging udder

sun of his world


(1984, 15)

A terrible inevitability is ushered by ‘crush gates’ and Perry’s hard pastoral focuses attention on this sanctioned cruelty in a way that is remarkably contemporary. She challenges boundaries between the non-human and human, inviting us to be kind to ourselves by being kind to animals. As she writes in the suite of poems called ‘Tea Leaves in a Willow Cup’:

Stop the year turning

draw the day out as silk thread

forget it is the day before death

let me be door

between the green outside

vegetal     gentle

and the animal

earth waits

I am cemetery

bridge     river

boat to lift you upstream

your birds escape my mouth

copper feathers fly over me

your leaves

birch lanterns

(1984, 41)

Perry’s juxtaposing of a poetics of place rich in rural beauty, of renewal and courage, with difficult and painful personal history, of cruelty and mental health decline, is impressively and dramatically evoked. The imagism, the precise scattering of her lines across each page, the non-stop flow of ideas that energises her free-form lyrics, the occasional experimentation with more traditional rhymes and stanza forms, is admirable artistry. Perry eliminates artificiality and in its place achieves a more flexible, modern and casual form demanding creativity. I consider us fortunate to have this rich river of words, this ‘smooth round script’ for Perry has shown us ‘if not reality / marginal possibility’ (1984, 30).


Alexander, Peter (2000), Les Murray: A Life in Progress (Oxford University Press, South Melbourne).

Bourke, Lawrence (1992), A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry (New South Wales University Press and New Endeavour Press, Kensington).

Dobrez, Livio (1990), Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia).

Dunlop, Ronald (2016), ‘Recent Australian Poetry’, first printed in Poetry Australia, 1970 & scanned by John Tranter in 2014,, accessed online 3 December 2016.

Hall, Phillip (2011), gathering points: Australian Poetry: a natural selection, Doctor of Creative Arts thesis, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, 2011,, accessed online 1 August 2016.

Hall, Phillip (2016a), ‘Ecological Postcolonialism as Bearing on Place’,, accessed online 1 August 2016.

Hall, Phillip (2016b), ‘Phillip Hall Reviews New Work on Judith Wright’,, accessed online 1 December 2016.

Jensen, J.M. (2016) ‘Perry, Grace Amelia (1927-1987)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 July 2016.

McAuley, James (1975), A Map of Australian Verse (Oxford University Press, Melbourne).

Perry, Grace (1963), Red Scarf (Edwards & Shaw, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1967), Frozen Section (Edwards & Shaw, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1969), Two Houses (South Head Press, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1972), Black Swans at Berrima (South Head Press, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1974), Berrima Winter (South Head Press, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1976), Journal of a Surgeon’s Wife (South Head Press, Sydney).

Perry, Grace (1980), Snow in Summer (South Head Press, Berrima).

Perry, Grace (1984), Be Kind To Animals (South Head Press, Berrima).

Scully, James (1966), Modern Poets On Modern Poetry (Collins, The Fontana Library, London).

Tulip, James (1968), “Frozen Section: A Review”, Southerly vol. 28, no. 1, p 69.

Tranter, John (2016), ‘John Tranter in Conversation with Bruce Beaver’,, accessed online 1 December 2016.

Published: June 2017
Phillip Hall

lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He is a poet and essayist who writes for such publications as Cordite Poetry Review, Southerly, Plumwood Mountain Journal, Verity La and Westerly. He loves to cheer.

Ecopoetry Reading and Discussion at Collected Works on 8 March 2017

On 8 March 2017, Plumwood Mountain journal hosted an ecopoetry reading and discussion with Scotland-based UK poet Helen Moore, and Australian poets Bonny Cassidy, Stuart Cooke and Michael Farrell, at Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne’s CBD. Bonny read from recent work in response to the Art and Herbarium project in collaboration with New Shoots, Stuart Cooke read from his new collection Opera, reviewed here by Caitlin Maling, and Michael Farrell read new work (an example of Farrell’s recent work ‘Settlerismo‘ appears in Cordite Poetry Review). Helen Moore read from her collection Ecozoa, reviewed here by Mary Cresswell and from new work. Anne Elvey chaired the event, also reading two short poems from her forthcoming work ‘White on White’ (Cordite Books). Helen has graciously allowed us to publish her poem,‘A State of Possession Already Existing Beyond the Memory of [Hu]Man[s]’, relating to the notion of the commonty. The evening concluded with a short discussion on the meaning of the term ‘ecopoetics’, something that takes on different nuances in the UK and Australia, being more elusive in the (post or rather ongoing)-colonial context of Australia.

‘A State of Possession Already Existing Beyond the Memory of [Hu]Man[s]’


Helen Moore


After Andy Wightman


“It will manifestly be rendering essential service to the tenantry and lower classes of cottagers in this district to deprive them of the privilege of misspending… so much of their time and labour… in collecting their miserable turf for firing, which is the chief and in fact the only benefit… that they reap from this common.”

Sir John Sinclair, re. the Commonty of Millbuie, Scotland, 1795


The commonty for building the complete

house: stones, clay for mortar, timber roofing & fixtures,

the fail & divot for walls/roofs, & a fine selection

of renewable thatches: heather, broom, rushes, bracken.


The commonty for fuel: peat & turf, gorse & broom,

sometimes wood, occasionally coal. At the heart

of the house, the hearth rarely extinguished,

extending warmth & heat for drying, boiling, cooking.


The commonty for grazings, & from Beltane, the flitting

of women & children to the sweet meadow grasses

up at the shieling – lumbering tongues of black Cattle

browsing flowers; rich milk in butter, cheeses, songs.


The commonty for mulching the kail-yard: kelp, limestone,

marl & turf. For cordage, the commonty’s Heather & Reeds;

the Birch, Rowan, Ash from the commonty for carving

quaichs, spoons, spindles, pipes, spurtles.


The commonty for yielding food & natural medicine:

sap, blossoms, leaves, berries, roots, mushrooms;

tonics of Heather & Thyme; Nettles rubbed on rheumatic

knees, cooked up for broth; root of Tormentil for fever.


The commonty for water: drinking, washing, work

at the clear-sighted burn; for dye plants, the commonty’s

colour-map in the warp & weft of the plaid. For

comings & goings the commonty; markets, fairs, worship.


Note to poem – the title is adapted from a chapter heading in Andy Wightman’s book, The Poor Had No Lawyers.

Com´mon`ty: n. (Scots Law): a common; a piece of land in which two or more persons have a common right. In Scotland currently just 2.5% of the land is community-owned, while large-scale private land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, including the Queen.

Published: May 2017

Language and the World

by Robert Wood

Language is the only thing that exists.


Let us say that after the new realist philosophical turn that the world does not exist, which is not to say that the world is a discursive representation as it were under the posts, but that as a totality we cannot see it despite it containing the universe; let us say this has happened, and which has led to the claim that because of this, everything else does exist, from unicorns in police uniform to pink elephants on the moon. Let us ask then: what is everything that exists without a tautology of it simply being everything? In other words what exists with the world, which does not?

Everything that exists, everything could best be expressed in the metaphor of being a language. If we speak of beyond good and evil or being and time, or any other such binary, let us establish the facticity of language and the world. It is what matters.

The question is not what world then, but what object domain, what language? We have some sense – notice here “we” and “sense” – that there are boundaries between languages. We speak of English or French for example without thinking of shared words let alone roots in older word systems in an infinite regress and people who speak both. But what, after structuralism, makes a language?


Language is to be understood as any systems of signs – words, money, visuals. This is not to place semiotics at the centre but use language as a metaphor and way of understanding wholes.


Language is always already networked. That is why it is systematic.


We are a function of our language.

We might be you and me; animals, politicians, writers, cyborgs, but the chain is one that is endless.


Gender is a language, class is a language, race is a language, ecology is a language.

We cannot separate ideal from material then.


The task of language is to enworld itself, which is to say desystematise itself. This can be done through recontextualising translation and translatable recontextualisation, which is the role of the poet. The poet as freedom fighter, healer. The task of the world is to enlanguage itself, which is to say manifest as some thing, to create a space for dwelling in, which is to systematise nothingness as non-existence. The poet participates in this by creating points of origin, genealogical big bangs – they make words at the start in a speculative act of emergence.


Every object domain is a language, which is not to say a lunchbox babushka container, but a way of understanding as a system.


Language knows its own existence; carries its trace through a material.


The problem of the world is the tower of Babel, the problem of the self is Prometheus. Sisyphus gets too much play – there is a reward in labouring each day.


The function of everything is translation. The ur translation is from the world to language.

World literature, for example, presupposes that the world exists, but what of a world language. We do have sayings of course – money makes the world go round, which implies money speaks all languages, but the system of foreign exchange puts paid to that notion. But what of the world and language? This is akin to asking what of nothingness and being.


The negation of non-existence is not existence.

The world may be said to exist in a number of languages, including in a variety of language games.


A word to be a word must contain its enlanguagement. This is not to suggest after structuralism that one can discern an everlasting myth essence geist from one such unit but that part to whole relations are everpresent. That is to say the negation of the world makes itself known through the self and that they point us towards a fragmentary notion of all-togetherness.

Language is a system of signs where one can’t perceive its systemness – even if a system is known as a system it cannot be explained as such, only distilled and abstracted as a type of partial representation.


We are interested in the density of connectivity rather than the web of social relations – density is not neutral description. What of the emotion quotient?

We cannot put the world into language not only because it does not exist but because everything that does exist is always already a language. The question is translation.


Does the repetition compulsion of Conceptualism, its unoriginality, not only refer then to a long duree fetishisation of the new, but also concern the classical philosophical discourse of mimesis updated to postcolonial times? In that way does Conceptualism itself colonise mimesis as a colonised subject’s strategy, which might beg the question of who is colonised and what is the contemporary political expediency of mimesis? What is to be copied, what is to be invented, is a false binary – repetition and originality is the wrong question – because it is all both at the same time because contexts shift things because of the relationship of language and the world. How might we translate which is at once a repetition and on another hand original?


The multipolar complexity of our coming geopolitical organisation means the material end of a binarised history – the cold war is well and truly over but we need to relate out, we need multiple translations concurrently.


There is an infinity of languages against the building block statement.


The best way to find your voice is through a materialist history of the self, which is of course an act of assemblage.


Poetry is a type of language. So too Conceptualism, English and rugby league, precisely because of their construction in the field which is a language. Language not only perpetuates language, begets it, but also is always already it.


Lexical conflict leads to an awareness of context – a homonym needs clarification by the sentence around it. Poetry as that which heightens homonymity through the use of ambiguity born from translation enables us to glimpse the context then precisely through recontextualisation, which is not to say defamiliarisation.

The false premise of poetry is to make the world become language. It is not about feelings to be expressed as if the essence existed in us and language was always an attempt at undoing ineffability. But that is always already a language, a system then of referencing is what we can do, not to draw a distinction between origin and repetition.

Do we need words that are so defamiliarising they end up influencing the context and not only the text? That was the historical technique previously, but now we need a different theory of works that matter; for now it is about the cult of the author because of the narcissistic culture of late capitalism.

One hundred years on we have fewer trees, more pollution – we need a poetry that is responsive to a basic materialism (unvulgar however) and construct from that an empathetic collaborative critique. We need to translate the Anthropocene.

We cannot do anything but intervene in the non-existence of the world. It is not about representing nothing but about re-presenting what is already here and that is always enlanguaged.

Language is as constructed as it is natural. Poetry too.


Parallel lines meet in their parallelism.


If structuralism privileged the ethnographer, linguist, decoder who stood outside the field and expressed, critiqued what was in it and if post-structuralism suggests that this seeing “I” is always already implicated and hence subjective and in the field, language now comes into its existence through a non-existing entity. This is not to say that we only ever know a section of the infinite or that an overview of the whole is impossible but that finitude emerges precisely because infinity exists in its non-existence. Existence is always relative to one or more fields of sense – what is a field then or what is a sense need be questioned and de-establishmentally established.


There is no non. Non-participation does not exist – we can only re-participate, there is no civil disobedience but only re-obedience, no de-construction but re-construction.


Language games are a useful mode of emotionally entraining social solidarities – networks that create language, which sit against the world.

Capital can be gained or lost through each and every specific unit of the language. But it is never unchanged even if we cannot yet perceive the change it causes.


The analysis must start with what’s in front of us, which is to say material regardless of intention, which is not to deny the presence of geist, which is not to binarise, but to suggest a historically, and hence philosophic, and hence sociological, attentive reading of language, which need deal with the deep surface of its presentation. In what game does “capitalism” mean X, which is not to say we need limit ourselves to functional and foundational definitions, to always already being in a state of clarificatory translating classifications, but to say text is dialectically contextual, language is enworlded. From that, this idea not of brick by brick building a wall, a tower, of parts being constitutive, but of synchronic dialecticism, one asks what might the point of language be? In other words, and other worlds, it might be to say what is the processive result, the resultant process, when we incite, invite, exchange, cite use the word “translation”? It is not only about the accumulation of cultural prestige, group solidarity, ritual entrainment, and of course their psychic embodied manifestations, but also the positive negation of its antonyms, which is to say its web of (un)familiarities becomes apparent as a real network that shows us what part of nothingness we fight against.


Language exists in order to bring the world closer to existence.

Language teaches us to be self-reliant whereas the world in never existing confronts us with a sublime that creates in us a desire to be connected.

What I can say, despite it being one of the misleading words, is that my world is language.

The world is all language.

Published: January 2017
Robert Wood

grew up in suburban Perth. He has published work in Southerly, Cordite, Jacket2 and other journals. At present he lives at Redgate in Wardandi country and is working on a series of essays.


Chinese Puzzle in Seven Pieces

by Lesley Synge

Although without name or form

Tao nurtures and makes all whole.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching[i]

1 By mid-morning the hire-truck, loaded with supplies and yesterday’s wet things, is gunning along the Tasman Highway. Tea Cosy, a bald man who likes to wear rainbow-coloured beanies, is driving. He and his offsider talk forests while I lean against the glass of the passenger window, dulled by the ache in my legs. In this sparsely populated corner of Northeast Tasmania, we pass only logging trucks.

I fantasise about taxis. One to take me to where my car is parked, over two days’ walk away.

Tea Cosy bemoans the terrain we’re driving through. “It’s like a slaughterhouse. All that’s left are stumps. Bleeding stumps.” In the cabin I move my legs slightly, testing for function. This time tomorrow the route will be uphill again, up to the Blue Tier. If I can continue.

“Forestry Tasmania’s responsible for this desecration,” says the offsider, a Hobart man. “The native forest around here is destined for woodchip.”

Tea Cosy steers off the bitumen highway at a sign: Maa Mon Chin Picnic Area.


We jolt along a dirt track. On one side, plantation pines tower darkly over a brown mat of needles; on the other, grass surrounds a lone wooden picnic table. He cuts the engine a few metres from an expansive body of water. Tonight’s campsite. The men jump out, intent on setting up. The instability of Tasmanian weather means that while the sun’s out, there’s no time to waste.

I bundle out from the cabin like a sack of potatoes. Trekkers who opt out of walking are expected to pitch in, so I gather armfuls of our wet belongings and sling them over a makeshift clothesline between two pines. Leaving the sodden socks and jumpers to steam-dry, I limp over to the support crew who are expecting me to help erect the kitchen tarp.

“Can’t do any more,” I apologise tearfully. “Have to lie flat.”

Tea Cosy asks, “What about your tent? Can you put it up?”

I shake my head pathetically.

“Then we’ll do it. Later. Rest up.”

I hobble to my duffel bag, rummage in its pockets, and extract a plastic poncho and a square of canvas. At the water’s edge, I spread out my groundsheet and lie down flat on my back. Prop my legs – my poor aching legs – up against a tree trunk. Elevate or amputate.

An hour of the tree’s support and I feel a faint ebbing of the pain. Only now do I notice that I’m being sheltered by a Myrtle Beech, the species that dominated yesterday’s wet journey through old growth forest. This young-un is some three metres tall with tiny dark-green leaves and lovely twisted limbs.

What a place, I register with sudden awareness. So still. So peaceful. The sky above is a clean powder blue with white clouds flying in intriguing shapes. The hours pass while the men work – Tea Cosy’s also the cook and he’s focussing on feeding the twenty ravenous people who’ll troop in later. At times grey clouds invade and rain falls, but not heavily. When it does, I shrug into my plastic poncho and sit up until the squall passes. Then lie back down. I wonder if this is how dying feels: this sensation of being spent.

It’s two weeks since I left my home in Brisbane to drive almost 2000 kilometres to Melbourne. A week since I loaded my car into the belly of the Spirit of Tasmania. I remember standing on a deck of the huge vehicular ferry, gazing at the pastel hues of sunset over Port Melbourne. Flying to the island state would have been easier and cheaper but I’d wanted to experience the distance.

As the ferry ploughed across Bass Strait, I reflected on how little I knew of Tasmania. Of the Northeast Highlands – where my Buddhist bushwalking club was heading – I knew nothing at all. With bushwalks, I tended to go with the flow, leaving it to the organisers to chart the route.

At midnight when almost everyone on board was asleep, I threw on a jacket and slid open one of the heavy doors to the outside deck. The ferry was vanquishing the most gigantic waves I’d ever seen, and in the blackest of nights. Salty spray and cold winds slapped my face and I grinned like a child. Night on Bass Strait! Bound for Tasmania! After the ship had berthed, I’d actually driven off, crowing inwardly, I like wild; I like tough.

I spent several days playing the tourist in Launceston, the third oldest city in Australia after Sydney and Hobart. There in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, I came across a 19th century Chinese joss house. The exotic, colourful Guan Di Temple seemed incongruous in such a very English city. Information panels explained that it came from Weldborough in Northeast Tasmania, a tin-mining town that had thrived from the 1870s until mined out in the 1930s. The thousands-strong Chinese community of Weldborough had carefully preserved their place of worship and now the joss house is one of Launceston’s greatest treasures. On the wall opposite was a photograph of a dignified Chinese man dressed in an English suit: Maa Mon Chin, the community leader associated with the joss house. Then I thought no more about the Chinese tin miners of the Northeast. I’d come to bushwalk, not to delve into Australian mining history. It was time for the poetry of the Tao Teh Ching and the body on the move, not information panels.

Have done with learning

Then your troubles are over.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

2 I recall how the trek began. The rendezvous was at a community hall in a valley of dairy cows. Pyengana. Population: 120. Famous for cheese. We trekkers sat in a circle on the floor of the hall and introduced ourselves. There were three main groups: the tiny support crew from the mainland; trekkers from the mainland; and Zen Buddhists from Hobart. Our guest of honour was Aunty Gloria Andrews, a highly respected Aboriginal elder from St Helens, a seaside town on the east coast about 30 kilometres away. She’d come to give a “welcome to country”. There was also a Northeast Highlands local who would lead our troop on some less-travelled trails, a woman around my age but far fitter. When she’d been approached by our unconventional club to be our guide, she hadn’t been fazed to learn that we would walk in silence to help us to connect with the landscape.

Turning her warm brown eyes on us, Aunty Gloria said, “Haven’t been to the Tier in a while myself. But it’s lovely up there. Special. You’ll enjoy it when you reach it. And as you go, everywhere you look, you’ll see Aboriginal stories in the landscape. Let the land talk to you. There are secret places that only the Palawa, the indigenous people of Tasmania, know about,” she said, “but you won’t be going near them so you’ll be safe.”

Aunty Gloria’s dark hair framed a strong yet friendly face. As she continued to speak about the indigenous connection to landscape, I recalled similar conversations with my friend Herb Wharton, a Murri drover-turned-writer from Cunnamulla, west of Brisbane. “The landscape’s very important,” Uncle Herb often declared in his wise, no-nonsense way. “True history is written on the land. The true stories are in the tracks humans leave behind.”

After Aunty Gloria had welcomed us to her traditional lands, we ate the first of Tea Cosy’s vegetarian dinners. Collectively, our temporary tribe of twenty had connections with many landscapes: urban, rural, and on the wild side. We are aware that many Australians feel so guilt-ridden about the toll of colonialism on Indigenous people that they believe that non-Aboriginal Australians cannot walk the land in any state except profound alienation. But Aunty Gloria didn’t want us to do this. She wanted us to enjoy connecting with country.

Aunty Gloria then left with our guide for St Helens. They smiled and waved goodbye – two women who loved the northern forests so much they’d initiated a struggle to stop the logging of the old growth forests a decade ago, and they’d been arrested. We bedded down, serene with anticipation, ready to walk a roughly circular route of 200 kilometres.

On our first day on the move, our troop hiked through the Mount Victoria Forest Reserve. (The name “Victoria” – after Queen Victoria – is popular in Tasmania. Clearly, the Tasmanian colonial establishment loved to name places to honour British royals – from museums to mountains.) We set up camp at a picnic shelter near Ralph Falls, a drop of 90 metres on sheer rock face. Any fall of water is a wondrous sight but Ralph had style. Its long ribbon of white was highlighted by a deep gash down one side – black, instead of the usual weathered elephant-hide dolomite. White milk and dark crevice – yin and yang.  On the following day, we struck north, passing through a Gondwana remnant. Here, the dominant tree species was not the Eucalyptus but the Myrtle Beech. Pelts of moss and sprouting ferns covered their spreading boughs.


The rain set in, in earnest. The downpour made it tough. There was no path as such; we often bush-bashed through bracken towards tree trunks that our guide – some weeks before – had tied with ribbons of coloured plastic.

As my knees twisted this way and that, my confidence ebbed. When I squatted in bracken to pee, leeches climbed on board, revealing their bloody presence at the next pee stop. For the first time in years of hiking, I felt close to hysteria. In horror-movie style, a leech latched onto a trekker’s eyeball and he had to kneel like a small child to let our guide pluck the glossy black trespasser off with tweezers. I was the last in the line all the way; barely made it out. Felt gutted to find the “campsite” was nothing more than the communal tarp on a slope of jagged gravel, the verge of a forestry road.

We erected our personal tents in thundering rain then huddled around a fire under the tarp, and ate. Our bodies wove awkwardly around the poles; wet garments draped above our heads sent water dripping down our backs. Later, alone in my small damp tent, I took stock: energy levels at zero; aching legs at 100%; the wet everything. But in the morning, I vowed, in the morning, I’ll lace up my boots …

In the morning I hobbled through the rain over to where last night’s fire  smouldered to find my socks were sopping wet and the innards of my boots buckled from being pushed too close to the flames. After only two days on the move, I faced defeat. What would a sage say?

Know your limits

Save yourself from harm.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

3 Here at Maa Mon Chin Lake under the young Myrtle Beech, finches, wrens and robins come and go, especially in the reeds and bulrushes at the water’s edge. On the opposite side of the lake is a native forest, made into a mandala by reflection.


The lake ripples with puzzling underwater creatures. Two ripplings come close enough for identification: platypus. The clear water slides easily off their sleek, densely-furred bodies. Usually too shy to show themselves, here they exult in their safe habitat.

As the hours drift, I muse on the phrase: brought down to earth. It has a malicious, serve-ya-right edge, but down here with the crawling insects (chief of which are ants), down here with the roots of trees, I appreciate earth as never before. I consider reviving the Flat Earth Society to convince others about the restorative effects of lying flat on dirt for a day.

I focus on the profound stillness of the lake. Time seems to be flowing in another dimension. The thinking process becomes almost non-existent. It’s possible to follow the trajectory of an individual rain drop; see it fall, see it hit and enter the body of the lake; see a circle form; see that circle expand and intersect with other circles from other raindrops. See the mind perceiving it all. Defeat transcended.

As the aromas of turmeric, cumin and cauliflower waft over the clearing, the others arrive, the local guide in the lead. How self-sufficient she is; how at one with the forests.

Tents proliferate; talk sets in; some Tasmanians swim in the cold lake; the sun dances west. The group assembles to rehash the day. With the improved weather, the mood is upbeat and talkative. Someone says how much they like the lake.

“Isn’t a lake,” our guide states. “It’s not natural. It’s the dam of a Chinese bloke called Maa Mon Chin, a tin miner. It’s man-made,” she says.

“Maa Mon Chin!” I exclaim as I link the joss house photograph in Launceston with where we are now. The fallen sign I’d seen from the truck at the entrance to the picnic area earlier hadn’t quite done it.

“Chinese tin miners worked the ground all around here and up on the Blue Tier from the 1870s to the 1930s,” says one of the men from Hobart. “Europeans too, but mostly Chinese.”

“Tomorrow we’ll pass some of their discarded machinery,” our guide confirms.

“I’ve read about Maa Mon Chin,” I clarify to explain my outburst. “At the museum in Launceston. The Chinese miners practised a blend of Taoism and Buddhism.”

“Miners don’t practise anything!” someone near me mutters. “Except rip-offs.”

“The joss house in Launceston proves they did,” I persist, ever the lapsed history teacher.

“The Queen Vic! Worth a visit,” the same Hobart man adds for the benefit of the mainlanders.

“It’s no accident that it is so beautiful here,” I continue. “A Chinese miner could see the forces of nature around him. He could see that nature would reclaim the landscape after mining and make it whole again.” It’s not purely self-interest which makes me add, “There’s good reason to stay here for two nights.” The others haven’t had the opportunity to take in our surrounds that my day of lying on my back let me do; they can’t yet know the special calm of it. Even if it is landscape altered by human activity.

“Mining,” someone else interjects, “is never good for the environment”.

“The Chinese tin miners were the first to bring a Buddhist sensibility to Tasmania,” I point out. “We’re Johnny-come-latelies. This place is magic. It’s Maa Mon Chin’s legacy, his gift to future generations. Why rush away?”

The conversation around the circle ebbs and flows until it’s time to break for sleep. In my tent on a grassy bank, I drift off contemplating the power of water. Harnessing fast-flowing mountain water to extract tin, as the miners did here, had to be less intrusive than, say, using cyanide to win gold. The dams held the water that drove the waterwheels that drove the stampers which crushed the granite and released the tin ore. Mining by water – the reason for the present health of this landscape.

I wake with the bell, the summons to yoga. I’m still weak but know that the others aren’t; they’re itching to be off. I join the circle near the kitchen tarp, inwardly rehearsing my bulletin: Potato Woman Calls it Quits. Taxi needed for travel from Maa Mon Chin Lake to Pyengana. But the organisers intervene: today will be a rest day. There’s always one on a Buddhist bushwalk, they’re bringing it forward.

I’m thrilled. We can all be in step with the Tao now.

All day, the lake is a magnet. By its side, with crossed legs and closed eyes, we meditate, travelling into the landscapes of our minds. A Tasmanian with botanical training, caught between keeping the silence and the urge to share his knowledge, indicates the Beech we’re sheltering under. “Nothofagus cunninghamii. Living fossil, relic of Gondwana, yields a nice pinkish timber.” Lets his lids close again.

To get to know even one tree – in this island of billions – is, I feel, a joy. At dawn, noon and dusk as I sit meditating – travelling to places in the mind that words struggle to define – the young Beech again protects me. And when I limp to dinner and the evening circle, there it stays – a many-limbed creature at the mercy of her playmate the wind. Wind makes her leaves shiver and dance like a goddess.

I sleep well and in the morning, wriggle out of my sleeping bag and stand upright, healed. I’m ready to leave and ascend to the Blue Tier. What does the sage say?

Be like the water – simply by flowing along

Much is accomplished.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

4 On the way up to the Blue Tier where the hardiest tin miners flocked in the 1870s, we pass through the village of Weldborough (population 20). The district was originally called Thomas Plains, after the first surveyor, a name that changed to honour Weld, an early Tasmanian governor, who visited the district to see the booming powerhouse of the colonial economy for himself. In Victorian times, the Chinese – who lived in the Chinese Camp, separate from Europeans – were notable for their pigtails and their habit of walking single file. They were known by a variety of names, ranging from the romantic “Natives of the Flowery Land” and “The Celestials” through to the less sensitive or outright derogatory: “almond-eyed Mongolians”; “John Chinaman”; “Chinkeys”; “chows”.

As we forest pilgrims file through Weldborough – conjuring up ghosts despite our lack of pigtails – the sight of our wordless traverse prompts the folk in the pub to crowd the front doorway. Pots of amber in hand although it’s only ten in the morning, they gawk and comment with amusement. Except for one.  A young woman – Thai I guess by her golden skin – stares with recognition. Next to her is a burly bloke who is probably her husband. She sees what no-one else does – that we’re on a spiritual journey of some sort, something that recalls the monks in her homeland going on alms round. She lets her child slide down from her petite hip to cling instead to her ankles and brings her hands together as a sign of respect. My blue eyes catch her dark eyes; we smile.

It’s a steep, ten kilometre hike up through the Blue Tier Forest Reserve to the plateau. We pass through regenerating rainforest and see rusty machinery and the remains of the numerous “water races” that removed tin the alluvial way. On the plateau, grass is absent but there’s green mossy stuff and white spongy stuff which a boardwalk protects from our feet. The same boardwalk allows wheelchair access to visitors who arrive in cars via the road to the plateau. GOBLIN FOREST WALK reads a sign and sure enough, the stunted trees are decorated with beards of lichen.

Rather than goblins, I sense the ghosts of old miners. It’s spooky, claustrophobic, cold and desolate. “This can’t be summer,” we mainlanders whisper. “Imagine winter – punishing.”

The vista from the tumbled rocks of nearby Mount Michael is, by contrast with the stunted forest we’ll camp in, expansive. The wild wind shakes Tasmania out before us in four directions: a light-drenched, shadow-shifting, blue-green-gold glorious land. The troop beams. Are humans happiest when diminished to the size of ants? Yes. Only when diminished can we properly salute the beauty of Earth.

My body doesn’t falter today, or on the next, or the next.

The days pass, tramping, tramping; sighting natural joys too many to catalogue. When we return to Pyengana, I’m not alone in feeling reborn. Energised. Balanced. Connected.

At the final evening circle one trekker sums it up. “Aunty Gloria told us, ‘Let the country talk to you.’ Well – the country sure did. And we sang back!”

I drive out of the valley to see more of the island. For ten more days I let Tasmania talk to me: Bay of Fires; St Helens; Freycinet Peninsula; Hartz mountains; Lake St Clair; Franklin and Gordon Rivers; Cradle Mountain. Eventually, after the return voyage across Bass Strait and after the long dry 2000 kays of highway home, sub-tropical Brisbane reclaims me. I’m too late for its opulent summer scents of fallen mangoes and frangipani. It doesn’t matter – every part of this country is worthy of respect.

The world is a sacred vessel

which must not be tampered with or grabbed after.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

5 For the next year and a half, Maa Mon Chin Lake was often in my mind. When sitting in meditation I deliberately recalled it. In the practice of meditation, the “meditation object” is usually the breath, but I switched from its rise and fall to the picture of Maa Mon Chin Lake as the rain fell – slow and delicate – into its body, and the boundless calm of its realm. Whenever my concentration wandered, I brought it back to this. Not surprisingly, my reverence for Maa Mon Chin as a Taoist sage and a visionary increased. The more I meditated in this way, the more my reverence grew. I reacquainted myself with the Tao Teh Ching.

I arrange a second trip to Northeast Tasmania. This time I arrive in spring (the equivalent of a bitterly cold Brisbane mid-winter), and this time I fly into Launceston. There are notebooks in my cabin luggage instead of camping gear in my car. I will be writer-in-residence in the Kings Bridge caretaker’s cottage located in the Cataract Gorge Nature Reserve, and not far from the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Except for the reserve’s walking tracks, it will be a working holiday, a desk-bound one.

Launceston is at its loveliest. The spring wildflowers of the trails in the nearby nature reserve are blooming; closer to the city are camellias, daffodils and snowdrops. On one lovely temperate day, I decide to pay my respects to Maa Mon Chin by revisiting the joss house he’d once worshipped in. Because Launceston is a small city where visitors are embraced, I’ve learned the local language quickly and describe my intention to the young woman serving my morning coffee – “Yes, I’m off to the Queen Vic.”

I cross the lawn of Kings Park (for goodness sake: Kings Bridge, Kings Park!) to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. The joss house is every bit as colourful and intriguing as I’d found it on my last visit. Again I stare at the photograph of Maa Mon Chin. (Sage! Visionary!) At the council library, I enquire about the local history collection.

I can soon recite the basic facts about Maa Mon Chin: born around 1845 in a village near Canton (now Guangzhou), came to Australia with his father to mine gold. In the 1870s, because the preservation of food in “tins” became a boom industry, the mining of the miraculous metal of tin (dubbed grey gold) became more lucrative than yellow gold. Father and son sailed from the colony of Victoria to the colony of Tasmania. As well as developing tin mines, the young man established the Chin Chinese Store in Weldborough to cater to the frontier population.

Maa Mon Chin lived in the Chinese Camp at top end of the settlement in the best house. He was a boss man and called “the mandarin”, a man of prestige who even British governors called upon when they toured the colony. The Weldborough Hotel that we’d passed on the way to the Blue Tier stands where the All Nations Hotel once stood. Then the Chinese community was the largest of the multi-cultural, or “all nations”, scene. The miners felled timber willy-nilly, their settlements making small clearings in the Tasmanian Blue Gum forests. They built the sluices and races needed for their plants and, in time, cottages, fences, businesses, schools and churches.

Mining and trading made Maa Mon Chin wealthy. Within a decade, he requested a quality bride from his native Canton. They had eleven children. In 1920, when the ore-body was mined out and when he was seventy-five or thereabouts, he closed the store, finalised his affairs and retired to central Melbourne where he died not long afterwards. Maa Mon Chin had therefore resided in the Northeast Highlands for nearly five decades whereas I’d spent only two handfuls of days there.

At this point I put my library reading aside. By focussing only on the facts I was losing my connection with earth and water, and with the sound of the country talking.


A voice in my head said, Let the woman in.

It was Loola Kow You.

Infinitely creative, inexhaustible, barely knowable –

The Doorway of the Mysterious Feminine.

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

6 In 1887, Loola Kow You, a young and innocent girl with the bound feet indicative of a genteel background, sailed to George’s Bay (now St Helens where Aunty Gloria lives) with a dowry of silk clothing and an attendant.


Maa Mon Chin, her husband-to-be, met her. The port and the landscape must have made a powerful impression on Loola. The bay is still a place where black swans arch their strong necks, sea eagles make forays for fish from their eyries in tall trees, and great flocks of migratory birds settle on nearby marshes. Mr Chin, as he signed himself, would’ve further received tea, ginger, bamboo shoots, clothing, furniture, crockery, rice and rice wine for his store and, last but not least, human cargo – labourers. Some of these he would employ directly; some he would hire out to European mine owners via a tribute system. As solace for the loneliness they’d soon know in the country that was 41 S 148 E, opium, as thick and black as treacle, was especially imported for them. It was then legal.

Mr Chin’s team of pack horses were loaded and the party headed to Thomas Plains (proclaimed “Weldborough” two years later, in 1889) some 25 miles (30 kilometres) away. The poor horses that carried the supplies from the port to the miners inland frequently broke their ankles on the terrifying mountain track. They often slipped and tumbled into one of the deep valleys below. One slip of a hoof, the bride-to-be would have realised, and death would claim her. But Maa Mon Chin knew the track; he’d made this trip on business many times. Perhaps he did feel a certain anxiety on her behalf. Ten years prior, the colony’s white settlers marked the death of “the last full-blooded Aborigine, Queen Truganini”, and fear has a habit of lingering. As well, there was a specifically Chinese wariness about the prospect of hostilities from Europeans. In the 1870s when father and son arrived from Victoria, anti-Chinese sentiment was rife. Within the year, Maa Mon Chin’s own father had been robbed then murdered not far from the All Nations pub.

The journey must have astonished Loola. A newspaper correspondent at the time described it with great admiration. “The road winds, loops … to the low level plains of Weldborough … the views are alpine in outline … with vast expanses of forest, enormous deep gorges, rippling streams, and beautiful … fern glades … some … 12-14 feet high.” It was … “the grandest of mountain scenery”.[ii] (Today it’s still breathtaking – the ferns are so huge they are known as “man ferns”.) The sight of the All Nations Hotel must have been equally astonishing. Crowds of men, Chinese and Europeans alike, were waiting in front of it to catch a glimpse of her, cheering as she passed. Her husband’s home overlooked the joss house. Its caretaker would have immediately ushered his countrywoman inside to pray for good fortune. There, amidst incense smoke, he’d tell her that Europeans labelled the temple “heathen” but nevertheless visited in droves.

Chinese New Year celebrations were especially popular with nineteenth century Europeans and they came from near and far to enjoy them. Pigs from Pyengana were slaughtered and cooked in big stone ovens. In front of the Chin store, rice wine, Mi Kee Loo (now written as Muigui Lu), flowed freely and the miners of the region – hard men, generally without the comfort of women – liked the exotic drink. Cymbals clashed and drums and gongs beat out rhythms for the dragon dances. Above the throng, the great forests loomed and fireworks lit the nights for weeks at a time.

For the next four decades, Loola lived beneath the Blue Tier. Her bound feet were not meant for trekking – in China, only peasant women ventured out into the forests – so she could know precious little of the outdoors. Loola lived a cloistered life, demonstrating a keen interest in the latest fashion and in hosting afternoon teas. (This does not imply superficiality on her part – they were different times.) The refinement of her dress and behaviour both fascinated and impressed her contemporaries, perhaps suggesting possibilities they’d never before considered. The eleven children she brought into the world must have kept her busy. When photographed in 1903, surrounded by the first eight of them, her demeanour conveys a serene woman whose features are delicate and symmetrical, her clothing traditional and rich. She was the embodiment of all that could be admired in a Chinese woman of her social standing.

Her fourth son Frank[iii] who lived from 1897-1985 is pictured standing in front of his father. He was eighty-eight when interviewed by the Chinese Museum in Melbourne and recalled his mother as “the most photographed woman in Tasmania in her young days … she was the most beautiful Chinese woman you ever saw”.


The Chin family seem to have escaped the natural and man-made disasters that defined so much of the community life of Weldborough: bushfires, drownings, dray accidents, axe accidents, horse accidents, gunshot accidents, mining and sawmilling accidents, and fights. They were untouched by storms so fierce that giant Blue Gums, as if they were no more than joss sticks telling fortunes, crashed onto cottages and roads. Still, there were winters so cold that ice lay around in sheets for months. There was the influenza epidemic after the Great War.

In 1920 Mr Chin decided – enough! The oldest sons were already settled across Bass Strait in Melbourne and the Tasmanian Chins would join them. This was the juncture – I surmised during my Buddhist walkabout – at which Maa Mon Chin, influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, gifted his dam for the benefit of future generations.

I imagine them at the Kings Wharf in Launceston (yes, another place named for a British king!) booking a passenger steamer, and enjoying the company of Chinese friends who ran import-export businesses nearby. Before the voyage up the Tamar River to Bass Strait, the Chin family had the opportunity to stroll along the concrete paths of the Cataract Gorge – the paths I walked daily during my residency. At the Victorian-style pavilion where peacocks strutted around, did Loola and her husband feel pangs of longing for the famous peacocks of Canton? How did they regard the sophistication of Launceston, a city of fine architecture and an abundance of churches? In 1920, even the caretaker’s cottage at the mouth of the Cataract Gorge was architect-designed; the council employees who lived there could banish the dark of night with an electric light and turn on taps for water – unlike the rough ways of the Northeast. It must have primed the family for “marvellous Melbourne”.

What thoughts did the members of the family have as they left? The Tamar is not actually a river but an estuary laced with wetlands. Did the introduced willows on the banks rekindle memories for the Chinese-born couple? They would have seen black swans and cormorants as well as big Pacific gulls and pelicans overhead. On the Kwei River in China, the cormorants were domesticated, with ties on their necks to stop them swallowing the fish they caught – in Australia they were free. After the melaleuca forests came the tame lands: orchards where apples grew, pastures where sheep grazed, and gleaming wheatfields. Slicing through the glassy surface of the estuary, they would have passed brick mansions built by prosperous farmers. The waves of the strait would toss them about fearfully before the steamer could berth in Port Melbourne. In Little Bourke Street, later known as Chinatown, a large residence awaited – a former hotel, with many rooms.

Do what’s right

Then stop!

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

7 My mission feels complete. It’s as if, in early 2013, I had walked the Northeast for Loola Kow Yu as well as for me – she was not a woman who could have walked it for herself.

Before packing up my library books, I flicked back through the most helpful source, Tin Mountain by Garry Richardson, a Northeast Highlands forestry-worker turned local-historian, and a very knowledgeable man. In the course of his research, Richardson discovered a cache of poems by a bush poet from Weldborough named Bill Butt. The poems evoked the mining history of the district so poignantly that Richardson embellished his history with them.

When I reread Bill Butt’s “The Laffer Dam”, my eyes pop at this couplet because they throw my neat views of Maa Mon Chin as the giver of wise gifts into the disarray of a Chinese puzzle, “Remember this dam is the Laffer, Bill Dickenson put it in / Nothing in any way to do with that Chinaman, Maa Mon Chin.”[iv]

Nothing to do with Maa Mon Chin? The lake that restored me to life is misnamed? Impossible. I turn to other material in Tin Mountain; it corroborates the bush poet’s belief (and that of the historian) that the Laffer Company, funded by capital from Britain and an all-European operation, built the dam as part of their mining operations. Apparently Forestry Tasmania chose the name without consulting the locals.

So, I reason, if the “lake” we camped by was not one of Mr Chin’s concerns, it follows that the Taoist-Buddhist values I “saw” were only projections.

I continue to flick through Tin Mountain, pausing to revisit the photograph of the state’s “North Eastern Pioneers”, originally published in the Weekly Courier in 1910. Except for Mr Chin, the twenty of them are European. As a “pioneer” – he’s surely entitled to at least one place name. And for all we can tell now, when fresh from the Victorian goldfields he could have worked the area before the Laffer Company bought in. Given the immense contribution of the Chinese workers to the Northeast, something is better than nothing. Maa Mon Chin Lake it should remain!

Then another revelation unsettles me. The Chinese Museum in Melbourne spells the name Chin as Chinn but, in any case, Chinn could not have been the original surname of the family, even though the store was known as The Chin Chinese Store. The surname is Maa, or more accurately – Ma. The place that means so much to me should, in fact, be called the Ma Dam! Too much!

I fantasise a total name spill in the Northeast Highlands. (If all names are up for grabs, how about dumping Weldborough for Maborough? Or embrace the feminine and call it Loola Kow Yu.)

The mix-up(s) illustrate something important about the passage of time and the vagaries of history. Australians, infamous for their anti-Chinese sentiment in colonial times, have honoured a Chinese man; and a mining operation, in this instance, has inflicted little harm. Despite the destruction inherent in land uses imported from other cultures, in this small pocket of the world in Northeast Tasmania, nature and society have found a new balance, however imperfectly.

I’ve learnt something. In my reading of tracks on landscape, there’s a strange integrity at work; a Taoist truth. I’m going to let Uncle Herb out in Cunnamulla know: Herb, you old cattle duffer you, it’s true – the true stories are in the tracks humans leave behind. Some places are spiritual places. Some are physical. Sometimes the two are intertwined and there’s no pulling them apart.

Tao is always nameless …

Aren’t there enough names in the world already?

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching



Lesley acknowledges the Launceston City Council for an arts residency in the Kings Bridge Cottage in 2014.


[i] All references to the Tao Teh Ching are my own interpretations. For two thousand years this classic, famous for its refusal to put humans central to its philosophy, has contained advice for sages, rulers and ordinary denizens alike.

[ii] Quoted from The Examiner by Garry Richardson in Tin Mountain. Hobart: Forty South Publishing, 2013.

[iii] Frank Chinn interviewed by Constant Wong for the Chinese Museum, Melbourne, 1983. The photo is called Members of the Chinn Family c 1903, Chinese Museum Collection. Other photos are by the author and the bushwalkers of 2013, used with permission.

[iv] “The Laffer Dam” by Bill Butt, in Tin Mountain. Hobart: Forty South Publishing, 2013, 270.

A version of this essay will also appear in Hecate.

Published: January 2017
Lesley Synge

lives in Brisbane. Her poetic film, Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them, premiered at the Queensland Poetry Festival. She is assembling her nature writing into a collection to be called Over the Gullies and Far Away. Her e-novel Cry Ma Ma to the Moon, illustrated by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, is available on Amazon. Her most recent work is the biography Wharfie.


On Social Poetry after Kenneth Goldsmith

by Robert Wood

I come from nowhere: the suburbs of Long Island, a waste land bereft of culture … I know nothing of politics. I’ve spent the past thirty years in the studio. What do I know of the world? I know the network, I know art, I know music, I know literature. To think that I know more than that is preposterous.

Kenneth Goldsmith[i]

On March 13th 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith received a death threat on Twitter from Cassandra Gillig shortly after giving a reading. The reading took place at Brown University and was a remixed St. Louis county autopsy report of African American teenager Michael Brown, who was murdered by police and whose death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality including in Ferguson (Brown’s home town). Goldsmith’s performance was titled “The Body of Michael Brown” and the resulting commentary was widespread.

Goldsmith stands as the most visible figure of conceptual poetry. He has been interviewed for Playboy, The Colbert Report and performed at the White House.[ii] His visibility only increased after the Brown controversy and The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and others ran stories.[iii] Overland, Hyperallergic and The Poetry Foundation ran extended opinion pieces too.[iv] More recently there was a piece in The New Yorker, which attracted insightful responses from Cathy Park Hong and Brian Kim Stefans.[v] One aspect that has been absent in the Goldsmith-Brown debate is that “The Body of Michael Brown” is an appropriation of a representation not an appropriation of a real body.[vi] Thus, the author of the autopsy, the original creator, may have a legitimate claim of outrage for being plagiarised but others may have misread the action of the artist. This is not to disagree with Marjorie Perloff that it was in bad taste or that there has been a “structural racism” as demonstrated by Goldsmith’s defender Alec Wilkinson. However, by sampling the autopsy report Goldsmith also highlighted the state and focused our attention on what Louis Althusser called “the repressive state apparatus” that created the conditions for Brown’s murder in the first place.[vii]

If Goldsmith had done a neo social-realist spoken word slam, there may well have been applause, self-congratulatory compliments from left liberals intent on bringing Brown, Ferguson, #blacklivesmatter into the consciousness. But I would argue that this could be an aestheticisation of politics precisely because it lacks formal inventiveness.[viii] The object of criticism then is both those who murdered Brown and those who fail to see the radicalism of form in conceptual poetry itself. Within conceptual poetry though, as Hong points out, there is work being done that is social or committed. This was demonstrated to a loose degree by Divya Victor’s collated pieces for Jacket2 – “Conceptual writing (plural and global) and other cultural productions”.[ix] This was especially the case in “An affective response” by Aaron Apps.[x]

However, the immediate online debate’s thorough lack of historicising (no mention of Pound or Reznikoff), both in relation to poetry and poetics, seems to suggest it has mainly been an opportunity for the accumulation of cultural capital through personal identity politik. Nowhere has this been clearer that the moralising didacticism of the anonymous collective Mongrel Coalition.[xi] When the positionality of authors has been absent, people have been unable to sustain criticism within the frame of poetry, of taking Goldsmith as art for art’s sake or of recognising conceptualism’s diversity and merit. Only CA Conrad’s “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He’s an Outlaw” and Ken Chen’s piece “Authenticity Obsession or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show”, which both came later, challenged that.[xii]

So much of the initial criticism of Goldsmith’s Brown performance was about Goldsmith as a “white man”, so much so that it has tended to reify the liberal author function according to sets of criteria that do not adequately reflect lived and embodied experience let alone acknowledge his Jewishness or the “death of the author”.[xiii] It also assumed there was race solidarity, that people cannot be homonymic or fellow travellers. So, what is the white person to do? What are “we” to do after Barthes notwithstanding the self-promotion that has enabled Goldsmith to be a celebrity “Court Poet”?[xiv] I speak as someone who considers himself white and not.[xv] I as an author am not dead, though I do not necessarily want to suggest biographical detailism stand in for abstract “status groups”.

Goldsmith’s silence during and since the controversy has been conspicuous and his defenders have mainly come in private social media exchanges, especially Facebook, rather than through public channels. The reluctance to defend, exonerate, rescue Goldsmith is possibly due to the social reluctance to potentially position oneself as a racist as much as it is about the exhaustion of Conceptualism’s brand.

It is also important to note that what matters in America matters in the world such is the global reach of official avant garde culture. American hegemony is, of course, challenged internally and thus we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.[xvi] Indeed, conceptualism is a diverse and varied field with roots in previous avant gardes and other arts.[xvii] Kenneth Goldsmith is not in the same place as Vanessa Place; nor Erin Morrill, Craig Santos Perez, Myung Mi Kim, Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas Kearney, Jeremiah Rush Bowen or Joey Yearous-Algozin. Moreover, there is a difference between the everyday focused forms of Goldsmith’s earlier Day, Soliloquy, Fidget and New York Trilogy and the spectacular turn demonstrated by Seven Americans Deaths and “The Body”. Yet, what comes after, besides, next to Goldsmith, next to conceptualism after his Brown silence?


Bonito Oliva: You have said that the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.

Joseph Beuys: … I hold him in very high esteem, but I have to reject his silence. Duchamp was simply finished. He had run out of ideas; he was unable to come up with anything important … Duchamp … wanted to shock the bourgeoisie … He refused to participate. His “Pissoir” was a genuine revelation, a work which at that time undoubtedly had a considerable importance.[xviii]

In adapting Beuys’ comments on Duchamp one could suggest that Goldsmith’s silence on Brown has generated more heat than light; that his spectacular work admits a lack of ideas even as Day was a revelation. Goldsmith has on numerous occasions encouraged comparison between himself and Duchamp.[xix] He has stated privately that wants to do for language what Duchamp did for sculpture and also invites an art for art’s sake appraisal, which denies the politics of his work as suggested by the epigraph of this chapter. As a rejoinder we could look to Joan Kirner, when she stated:

Just by making a decision to stay out of politics, you are making the decision to allow others to shape politics and exert power over you. And if you are alienated from the current political system, then just by staying out of it, if you do nothing to change it, you simply entrench it.[xx]

I do not want to suggest Goldsmith is alienated or not, but to argue that there can be a politicised response to Goldsmith outside, beside, without the ideological frame of identity politics.

I want to draw from Beuys post-conceptually and focus on “social poetry”.[xxi] Post-conceptualism – a mode of thinking, approaches and a lineage (of people taught by Goldsmith and other conceptualists) – been excavated, presented and promoted by Felix Bernstein in “Notes on Post Conceptual Poetry”, as part of a special edition of Evening Will Come, which also featured writings by former students Sueyun Juliette Lee and Steve McLaughlin. Although there is discussion of aesthetics and politics in Bernstein’s work, particularly in relation to queer theory, there is little attention given to the frame outside liberalism or a critique through analogous structures. As yet, criticism of Goldsmith, and by extension Conceptualism, has not attended to criticisms of Duchamp.

Beuys’ critique of Duchamp, and hence my reading of Goldsmith, lies in his utopianism, which sought not to epater le bourgeois, but to transform every person into an artist, to find in the creative potential and daily labour of every individual a new social order.  As Beuys writes: “Politics has to become art, and art has to become politics.”[xxii] He goes further stating:

I think art is the only political power, the only revolutionary power, the only evolutionary power, the only power to free humankind from all repression. I say not that art has already realised this, on the contrary, and because it has not, it has to be developed as a weapon.[xxiii]

I want to give art the effectiveness of the whole creativity. Then I can give it more power and force, I can catch all the participants who are already researching, widen the direction for all people – I mean the majority in an equal way.[xxiv]

Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act.[xxv]

This idea of art encouraging freedom does not, of course, originate with Beuys, but it meant the expansion of his own practice. His early actions and his term “social sculpture” were malleable and wide-ranging, free-ranging ideas. There was the shift from gallery actions to mass plantings of trees, from teaching a limited number of students to public outreach and the founding of organisations, bodies, institutes. Notwithstanding the complications of utopianism (and even a certain mysticism that has been projected onto Beuys because of his “action” that saw him commune with a coyote), there was a strategic and material engagement with the world outside art, with politics, that is absent in Goldsmith.[xxvi] Central to this was the Seven Thousand Oaks project and the Free International University.

Beuys’ social sculpture was “how we mold and shape the world in which we live”.[xxvii] It was radical and dialogic: “Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from the teacher to the taught. The teacher takes equally from the taught.”[xxviii] As a corollary, “social poetry” is the language of how we mold and shape the world in which we live. As a term, it does of course refer back to social poetry as it has been applied to those in the Spanish Civil War, Texan Chicanos and Auden as well as containing within it reference to society, sociology, social realism and socialism. But these are historical references that re-affirm a definition that social poetry is poetry as committed commentary.

In referring to social sculpture we might want to think how “everyone is a poet”, how every language activity can be framed to be poetic, which surely comes as a sibling of Goldsmith’s early conceptualism that brought everyday language, the mundane metonymic detritus of conversation and the newspaper to the fore.[xxix] It is the re-discovery of the utopianism inherent in this framing that enables one to practice an “opening” “to come”, which has political resonance; we might yet find touchstones that have material implications in the spirit of early conceptualism. A social poet could indeed plant seven thousand eucalypts. A social poet could indeed recycle newspapers. A social poet may not need “felt” or “fat” or “hares” to keep him or her company in the language games that take politics as their cue.

This is to say nothing of M. NorbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, Fred Moten or Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s anthologies (What I Say and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone).

All these poets represent the diversity within Conceptualism. In Victor’s edited pieces for Jacket2, there was also a particularly resonant concern with ecology in light of the climate-changed present that Beuys foreshadowed. This included a discussion by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett on her swimming poetry project in the United Kingdom and Michael Nardone’s “On settler conceptualism”. As Nardone writes, “I want a literature that engages the language that forms power relations – modes of supremacy and domination – in the world.” For him, this involves gleaning, cutting up, assembling language from various sources connected to the Mackenzie Gas Project in Canada. These were “transcripts of testimonies, broadcasts, manuals, newspapers, legal texts” that were then “rewritten, reframed, or reformatted within a poetic text”. Speaking of the broader terrain of Conceptual poetry Nardone writes:

They are tactics that continue to be tested and transformed in recent works framed within the milieus of Conceptual writing: in Carlos Soto-Román’s Chile Project: Re-Classified, a work that documents an attempted blackout of neoliberal terror; in Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, which dredges up and disrupts narratives of colonizing what is presently known as the Canadian prairies; and in Jordan Abel’s Un/Inhabited, an attempt to dismantle the entire pulp-fiction genre of settler-colonial romance.[xxx]

In thinking through method and responsibility in post-Conceptual terms, I want to focus on Kate Middleton’s No Land, which constitutes an example of what Daniel Falb calls a “terrapoetics” in the Anthropocene.[xxxi]

 Middleton’s No Land may be called a “gleaned” text. It is derived from This Unknown Island by S. P. B. Mais, which is an Englishman’s travel guide to England published in 1934. As Middleton writes:

I took each chapter and, instead of crossing out – creating an erasure – drew boxes around the words of my new text. I wanted still to be able to read Mais’s original essays: they are charming; charmingly outdated. Within them I found strange texts, windswept, saintswept …. If, as Dickinson has it, “Art—is a house that tries to be haunted”, these texts are haunted by what I have left out.[xxxii]

Mais’ text begins with a quote from Coleridge, firmly situating him in a Romantic and British tradition. His is a tour of the greats. By contrast Middleton refers to Emily Dickinson, placing her in a proto-modernist frame. Middleton’s is a tour of tours; it is meta. What then does it mean to haunt and be haunted by this text? It may mean to engage with the presence of forebears, particularly if one mainly works in a lyric tradition as Middleton often does; it may mean to haunt them, to reclaim them in return. It might also mean to allude to land that is haunted by spirits, yarlies and massacres.

Consider, for example, “II. On Bury Art”, which is Middleton’s gleaning of “II. Glastonbury: King Alfred and King Arthur”. Mais’ version begins with a discussion of where Camelot may be, which is to say it is contentious between Caerleon-on-Usk, Winchester, Tintagel, Damelioc, Killiwic, Camelford and Somerset. It is about ambiguity of place. But as the title conveys, it is to Glastonbury “we” are being called. As Mais writes: “there are many reasons why you and I should go … [for] here is the Holy Grail, here lies King Arthur”.[xxxiii] The journey to the site of that most fabled of British kings, of Christianity, is punctured by the everyday when a woman collapses in a waiting room – “a Hardyesque story in Thomas Hardy’s own country”.[xxxiv] Yet soon we journey through the countryside (“white-washed, yellow-washed, pink-washed cottages of thatch”) from field to farm.[xxxv] Mais concludes by saying:

It is good occasionally to unravel the tangled skein of our origins, to look back at intervals at the rock whence we are hewn. A visit to Glastonbury does this for us. It does more. It reminds us in youth we set out in quest of the Holy Grail. That is a reminder that I, for one, need.[xxxvi]

The chapter is a reflection on walking, on myth, on religion and on aging. It assumes a type of nationalism and references Old England with a sentimental and positivist tone. Its politics are subterranean but we can assume that Mais is discomforted by the intrusion of the modern world – “a car-park … and a cinema betray a strange obliquity of vision”.[xxxvii] At the centre of it is a rational, contained, nostalgic “I”. There is, we can gather, a liberal, Romantic, conservative politics.

What follows is Middleton’s version:

You know Camelot

know that the only true Camelot is a green knoll of midsummer

But you needn’t thread every moment with a clock of Arimathea

with the sacred cup under the Tor

buried between architecture and archaeology.

Be shepherded into fact and fancy. Harbour both—

.  .  .

In the Pilgrim’s Inn, a loft room is haunted by the panoply of green

a palimpsest set on a green hill

white-washed, white

-limed, white smocks and

smocks not so white.

Then another change:

the flat brown road, hedgeless at flood level.

Withies upright at the junction.

.  .  .

To reach      the orchards: pull against the door-post of the Great Flood

the monument: flatten between the obelisk and the bridge
over the Tone

the withy-bed: sell the unstable canoe, half-full of water.

After landing be content with the remnants of a blue silk flag.

(The monument is a severity                 of pardon and vigilance, a

black piled heap of black

shawls, blotted out by grey

rain, orientated by the Dog

Star.  A cinema. A strange

obliquity of grandeur.)

And you unravel the tangled skein of rock. More. Of grail.

Camelot is now a material thing – “a green knoll of midsummer” – even as it is also a historical idea. Speaking directly to us Middleton implores us to “be shepherded into fact and fancy. / Harbour both.” Fact and fancy are established as opposites only for the reader to be welcomed, sent, coddled, cuddled, held by both as if there were a dialectical synthesis between poetry and history. “Shepherded” with its connotations of the pastoral, with its field associations, and “harbour” suggesting a respite from the sea, ocean, storm, indicate that we are in a safe, if not bucolic place. This continues in the next passage; however, we are “haunted” at the inn – not all is serene and welcoming. It is a “palimpsest” suggesting that there are layers here, of meaning, of memory; that it is followed by variations on “whiteness’” allows one to open up into the possibilities not only of the colour spectrum but the politics of settlement in an English-Australian context. Race becomes visible. The “flat brown road” is Mackellarian and the junction where we are is uncertain. We have not quite reached where we are going with the poem – it is not a procession from lush, green kingdom to featureless brown frontier. There is a pre-emptive haunting here, as if all relations, all empires and kingdoms have ghosts, spectres, traumas.[xxxviii]

In Middleton the periphery is tied to the metropole in a complex tangle of relations. If we want to get there we must follow what we are told in the next section: “to reach” one must perform tasks, act in a certain way as if the poet can be a speaker from a place of experience. Once one arrives, once one lands, if ever one can, we are told how to feel – “be content with the remnants of a blue silk flag”. Flag, that symbol of nation, is merely a “remnant”, not a proud, unfurling, striking semiotic claim to virgin, unsettled land. “Pardon and vigilance” – opposites of the juridical system collide. With “black piled heap of black / shawls” we are held in wait over a line break to see if it is black “bodies” not shawls. However, shawls too, in their feminist connotation, haunt us in the tragic figuration as a piled heap – one remembers memorials of the daily in this iteration.

The Dog Star, which the naked eye perceives as a single star but is actually a binary star system, references Hesiod’s poetic Work and Days. This interplay and use both of a colonial reading background and a system of establishing binaries only to destabilise them suggests the open possibility, the indeterminate politics of Middleton’s work, and that is what gives it a generative power when read alongside other works of unoriginality. It may connect with Conceptualism at the level of method of construction, but in its ability to be read, in its ambivalent political caring for the land, No Land is decidedly post-Goldsmith by paradoxically being pre-Goldsmith and reminiscent of Charles Bernstein’s adaptation of Erving Goffman’s Asylums.[xxxix] As Peter Allen or Gertrude Stein might say “everything old is new again”.

Art does not have an autonomous status. If Goldsmith knew nothing of politics, he knows something of it after “The Body of Michael Brown”. Although Adorno asserts that a critical concept of the social is inherent to the artwork, he also holds that the production of art is always part of the larger process of social labour and hence division of labour.[xl] His idea of “entwinement” positions, on the one hand, a possibility of art against the demand for a correct image of social reality (in his case against the demand for social realism, or, for example, against Conceptualism as the inheritor of the avant garde that relies on a metonymic repetition of the everyday) and, on another hand, the threat of complete commoditisation, a threat that turns art over to the expectation of social entertainment (the slam as competitive spectacle).[xli] For as Beuys writes:

Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build a social organism as a work of art.[xlii]


Talking to a Stranger: Decolonising the Australian “Landscape” Poem

by Bonny  Cassidy

The slow decay of the remains of a lonely farmer’s house, its decline and disintegration, its decomposition and eventual, inevitable assimilation into the environment, appeared before me in a Dantean vision of a transformation of colonial culture, a ruinously fecund metamorphosis of its radical imposition into something new and unrecognisable.[i]

In his powerful editorial introduction to the August 2016 issue of Plumwood Mountain, Peter Minter addresses the shared process of creating “a decolonised geopoethics” in Australia. In such a field of poetry and poetics, writes Minter, “everyone needs to take responsibility for imagining their own unique kind of transformation. In poetry and poetics, we have to think about how non-Indigenous form, western form, romantic form, lyrical form, white form, have a responsibility to current and future cultural conditions.” This, he suggests, is how the non-Indigenous or settler imaginary can reach “an existential common ground” with colonised Indigenous lives and expression.

I recently explored how some of John Mateer’s “Australian poems” attempt to do so.[ii] Whilst my discussion focused upon the tension between cultural ownership and cross-cultural “common ground”, I concluded it by considering how the mixed success of Mateer’s efforts might illuminate the more recent attempts of settler poets to imagine and represent “a transformation of colonial culture” in Australia:

We might consider how such poets retreat from attempting to represent or “embody” Aboriginality except by acknowledging its sovereignty through poetic means of voice, image, narrative or allusion. We might also, by extension, look at how they declare their settler identities as anxious, that is, dwelling within Indigenous Country: subjecting their origins to its sovereignty, in order to legitimately “gain presence” (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos, 105). Settlers might participate in writing a “new story of the nation”, but it firstly relies upon recognition of somebody else’s being … to advance ways of thinking through and representing belonging and shared history in the full presence of Indigenous sovereignty. To write about a place in such a way that is at once receptive and provisional.[iii]

In the following essay I want to I take up my own critical cue, to consider the ways some settler poets are attempting to transform Australian poetry’s representation of “the nature of nature, the character of habitus”.[iv] In these few examples, published within the past three years, poets experiment with ways of taking responsibility for that representation, that is, they try to acknowledge the continuity between the ground they refer to poetically and the actuality of un-ceded Indigenous ground. By drawing attention to the fact of colonised geography, the fact of living and writing upon it, they imaginatively represent a transformation of the settler’s body, identity and language. Whether or not the poets themselves are ethnically white, their poems interrogate what it is to participate in the condition of whiteness as non-Indigenous settlers. In doing so, these poems offer movements through a decentred concept and poetics of land, place and belonging – those haunted themes of so much settler Australian poetry, from the colonial era to the contemporary.

Called to Account

It is crucial to acknowledge that this discussion is made possible by the hard and painful personal, critical and creative work of Indigenous writers to mobilise against the ongoing impact of colonisation on cultural expression and representation. In his 1990 study of Aboriginal literature, Writing from the Fringe, Mudrooroo Narogin inverts the conditions of Indigenous cultural marginalisation, stressing that Aboriginal writing occupies an essential, critical position:

Aboriginal literature in Australia occupies a special place denied to the majority … This does not stop white writers from claiming that their writings have an authenticity even beyond those writers of the fringe … They become upset when their friendly Blacks deny their works any authenticity, when they turn their gaze upon them and call them to account.[v]

Mudrooroo’s contested Aboriginality may be seen to complicate his own “authenticity” here as a commentator. However, his view is echoed by Melissa Lucashenko’s address to settlers in “You Are the Fringes”.[vi] In that vision, settler writing must answer to the legacy and critical frameworks of Indigenous writing. Alison Whittaker, too, describes this as a shifting of Australian poetry’s supposed cultural reference point:

a self-sustaining, Indigenous-centric and culturally-reciprocal text is a way of taking literary space that’s not always conducive to the meanings that are put upon it by non-Indigenous people. I’ve coded levels of access, probably unconsciously, into my poems. The space should be there, I hope, for all Indigenous readers to take and understand meaning, and to introduce their own. I also hope that levels of the   text aren’t instantly accessible to non-Indigenous readers. I hope those readers have to ask, research, discuss and probe in a way that takes their space rather than them taking up the space.[vii]

These remarks illuminate a critical link between the settler poems featured here (and more too numerous to list): in its own ways, each poem imagines and represents a will to invert colonial power in its manifest forms of poetic landscaping. The poems’ shared imagining – a transformative practice of holding Australian poetics to account for its own role in constructing and repeating colonial paradigms – journeys toward what Minter calls “existential common ground” between Indigenous and settler cultures in Australia.

Unwriting ‘Land’

The Anglophone Australian settler toys with a poverty of adequate words for the context of their “habitus”. Nature, land, place, landscape and so on: they are unimaginative nouns that denote everything and nothing at once. This problem with basic units of representation is the focus of Anupama Pilbrow’s poem “homology”:[viii]

land rewrites itself, isn’t it

isn’t it


reconstituted: 2% fat homologized

[place a place content fat the milk

changes nation a nation

viscosity takes precedence

to pour the milk from jug a jug

someone has to redesign the curvature the spout

cream jug milk jug

to correct for nation specific pour

prevent drips spillages

group by absence &

money-making potential]

Pilbrow refuses the subject, “land”, which her poem introduces; she does not posit an alternative lexicon. Her refusal is immediately indicated by the ungrammatical line, “land rewrites itself, isn’t it”. The poem’s stammering, “isn’t it / isn’t it” suggests speechlessness in the face of something supposedly sublime – something so assumed that it hardly bears articulating in full. Or a breakdown of expected communication. The pastoral illusion that land rewrites – reforms or repurposes – itself is underscored by the words “repastured” and “reconstituted”, industrial processes that require human intervention.

The poem literally pushes aside a mimetic or aesthetic representation (scape-ing) of “land”. Through this industrialised formal strategy, Pilbrow un-writes “land” as a trope, disappointing conventions of “landscape” or “landscape poetry” by enacting a verbal and visual decentring of the concept. In this discourse, the statistic “2%” calls to mind the estimated 2.4% Indigenous population of Australia. In the poem this percentage is figured as “the fat” that is “homologized” by assimilation, like homogenised cream into milk. Pilbrow reminds us that the melting pot of Australian multiculturalism is a domestic “cream jug milk jug” specifically designed “for nation specific pour” to avoid “drips spillages”. Just like “land”, a poetic sense of “place” is “placed” – deliberately built, not organically formed: “someone has to redesign the curvature” for it to perform correctly. Here, both “land” and “place” are colonial concepts of “absence / and money-making potential”.

As I read this poem, I can hear the tonal and formal influences of Lionel Fogarty and Natalie Harkin. Pilbrow’s poem isn’t appropriative of those influences; it avoids representing any identity other than its discontinuous voice. It knows that to “think through the way mental categories have instantiated the space of dispossession is a very different act from giving form and expression to the experience of being dispossessed”.[ix] Pilbrow’s “homology” feeds back through the colonising language, transforming its tradition so that the problem of English – rather than “land” or “nation” – is a site of “common ground”. The poem focuses on conveying awareness of the Indigenous losses incurred by that language. As a result, the possibility of a centred poem is itself “lost” to the urgent importance of the aside. An economically conceptual poem, Pilbrow’s “homology” demonstrates that, in Australia, “every act of housing is coterminously an act of unhousing”. Jennifer Rutherford’s argument about the colonial inhabitation of space is useful here, because a poem occupies material as well as conceptual space. The settler poem is like the settler house:

The house never simply contains, nor is it simply present in the world of things … The production of space for white settler culture occurs always in a space of pre-existing spatial memory, imagination and invention.[x]

Pilbrow’s poem addresses the existing tradition of the landscape poem, its lack of innocence. Like Minter, Pilbrow watches the house of “nation” disintegrate – but she leaves others to imagine what metamorphosis follows the closing parenthesis.

In the Presence of Language

“The imaginative writer”, states Nicholas Birns, “cares about people in a way that is impossible currently to care through conventional socio-political means. Concern is what remains of a collective horizon once the state is no longer seen as a vehicle to bring us towards that horizon.”[xi] I admire Birns’ suggestion that construction is not always possible to offer or achieve, but that concern might sometimes be sufficient to partly extricate oneself from colonial foundations. A place of reflection, adjacent to the noise.

I, too, have busily engaged in the overuse of land, place and landscape, in the search for something more particular. I grew up in Cronulla, south of Sydney: adjacent to Botany Bay and Kurnell, where Captain James Cook’s landing point is marked; the site of anti-migrant race riots in 2005; and a steadily gentrifying oasis separated from the city’s sprawl by a broad river of marinas and mangroves. Apart from the Kurnell oil refinery, there is no primary industry; the district is built on what we might call family values, or sand dunes. My parents’ house formed a progressive island. From there I liked taking walks around the bays and beaches, though other kids seemed to know them in a different way – swim club, surf club, lifesavers. But perhaps nobody in Cronulla felt they belonged. Why else violently riot to defend it, except from anxiety about its loss to others?

In Reports from a Wild Country, Deborah Bird Rose proposes that “the dismantling of the warlike theory of self is a necessary step in moving towards decolonization”. She encourages the philosophy that in “settler societies … ethics become primary”:

Ethics involve relations between self and others, and thus actively abjure homogenisation, appropriation, objectification, and manipulation. “Self” and “other” matter in the here and now of their life and their difference. In our societies ethics includes relationships between Indigenous and settler-descended peoples, and relationships between our knowledge systems. It includes our moral engagements with our past and future, and with our ecosystems.[xii]

Perhaps belonging is a distracting and somewhat “warlike” notion with which to approach a decolonised geopoethics. How do I, as a settler poet, take responsibility for imagining an alternative?

Littoral geography and ecology has shaped a lot of my life, travel and poetry – not the suburb called Cronulla, but the topographic patterns and landmarks of coastal south-eastern Australia: from the beaches of northern New South Wales, to the Illawarra escarpment, to Tasmania. It is a partial and ongoing relationship that I have with these locations and ecologies; physically both connected and discontinuous. In one part of my long-poem Final Theory, I try to represent this through an encounter with language. In Final Theory, the image of the mutton-bird first appears within a setting that alludes to New Zealand, and under its commonly used (even for a tourist such as myself) Te Reo name, titi. When it reappears later on in the poem, however, the setting describes eastern Tasmania and the bird’s name is less certain:[xiii]

First we see

the starry flags tilted:

the birds that exist always elsewhere –

in name and abandoned hole, on the wing, after hours –

having traded off a final, pencil descent

for the return

to buried darkness

and rest.

You ask me their name;

I say one quickly, invented;

it sits on the wind,

no less alive than another, no more

than the birds at our feet.

First we see the first birds in years.

Our tyres blur into sand.

Shearwater is a species name that I have never used verbally; mutton-bird is a colonial moniker, which I’ve inherited from another cultural moment; and the Palawa word, which I first read on a sign near the Bruny Island isthmus, felt out of my reach – imported from a complex cultural history without knowledge or permission:[xiv]

Then in the red loam, a web of burrows

gaping open and feathered by the wind.

And a sign here names the bird, as you wanted;

not as I named it, but rounded and agile,

the language still warm. We roll it

into our sentences, but it hardly makes a sound.

I take it out of the poem and put it back on the ground.

Influenced by reflections on Mateer’s poem, “In the Presence”, I decided not to name the bird at all in this section of the book, but to write around its name. The Palawa word isn’t absent within the poem – like the evidence of fire that the speaker finds later, it is “still warm”, alive. But I decided to prise a gap between the poem’s authorial persona, who can describe the ecology but lacks a legitimate language for the bird, and the characters who unsuccessfully put the Palawa word to use. My poem’s act of representation is incomplete – a space is left open as a dialogic gesture. Stuart Cooke states that: “By listening, the settler is drawn into the possibilities of a connection; her subsequent response is the actualization of that connection.”[xv] Like the long strands of beach pocked with storm-blown birds, a windblown coast with its networks of burrows through volcanic soil, the poem is exposed to an awareness of inhabited sovereign ground.

My attempt at a decolonised geopoethics also draws on Cooke’s work around the theory of “nomad poetics”. It helps me grasp that a settler’s relationship with stolen Indigenous land can only ever be coming-into-being: a “search for a closer, more sensitive relationship between words and the ever‐changing terrain of which they speak”.[xvi] In Final Theory, the Palawa word is not mine to use, but I know of it and it sits alongside the metaphorical meaning that I make of the bird. In putting the word “back on the ground” the poem seeks to acknowledge the Palawa language as the one that holds un-ceded sovereignty; my speaker’s identity hovers alongside it. I see this as a nomad poetics that attempts to respond to changing observations and changing ground, that is, its task is to keep up with an unsettled sensory, ecological and psycho-emotional terrain.[xvii]

Cooke has pointed out that this poetics is distinct from a settler desire for “becoming native”, to use Freya Mathews’ phrase.[xviii] I would add that this poetics is also distinct from the culture of settler “belonging” that has been explored by Peter Read.[xix] Cooke advances the radical question to fellow settlers: “Why … do we want to become ‘fully native’ at all?”[xx] As Aileen Moreton-Robinson points out, settler nativism is problematic because it is so often “figured as personal“. A sense of “place” based on “personal sentiment” denies the “structural power relations” of dispossession that permit this sentiment to take place.[xxi] Irene Watson takes this point further, to show that such a concept of nativism may itself be a “colonising process of us becoming white and white becoming Indigenous, [as] white settlement deems itself as coming into its own legitimacy, as whites come into the space of our freedom to roam as Aboriginal peoples”.[xxii] When we turn this problem to the poems discussed here, we find that they try to offer a different way to move through sovereign space. They try to avoid the gaze of ownership or of romantic interpretation; they try to enact what Cooke theorises as “light‐footed travel”.[xxiii] This poetics invokes a suspension of permanent or continuous, place-based identity; it imagines the settler habitus with a community of others. Or, as Lucashenko puts it, at “the fringes”.

Walking light


Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos contend that, since white Australian history has relied so fundamentally on the exclusion of otherness, a progressive passage towards a proper understanding of settler identity can only be carried out philosophically, not historically: “For only a philosophical engagement has the potential to reveal the very meaning of unconditional surrender and with this meaning and value of listening.”[xxiv] I like to think that poetry is one form of such philosophical engagement, which can imagine a different ontology. I’m reassured by Cooke’s belief that poetry is “the most accommodating, unsettling and evocative kind of discourse we can summon”.[xxv] It “must elude the state’s optical ‘macroface’, even confuse it, taunt it”.[xxvi]

Ouyang Yu’s poem, “The evening walk”, moves through a physical space that is neither personal nor communal. For whom, and to whom, does the poem speak? It begins in the second-person, implicating the reader yet also narrating an exploration of deeply localised sensation:[xxvii]

The trees are louder at this time

of the day when the eyes follow

the feet in search of a pretty leaf

or fallen bark

The air is strong with horse shit, so strong

you put your nose to the naked

tree to smell the nothingness

of the bark

This “you” could be read as a pun on “Yu”, but the poem makes a turn that is signalled by the third-person singular – a distance that implies both speaker and reader, as well as something broader:

One will never be

great in this

land lying quiet and

domesticated nor will one

ever be that

violent and bloody

Living overrides all

concerns and creates

them as well here everyone

is a leaf or fallen bark, writable

with little admirable

but everything one


a smallness that matches

the land’s sky


Framed as an evening walk, the poem might be strolling through the closing hours of colonial settlement. The poem signs “Australia” through symbolic, even kitsch images: “fallen bark” and sublime “vastness”. If we didn’t already pick up the hint of “horse shit”, Yu explicitly redirects those familiar, romantic “optics” of settlement. Speaking as “one”, the poem constructs a philosophical origin story for “everyone” “in this land”: tension between the scale of the continent’s habitus and the “smallness” of the colonies produces mediocrity that “creates” its own concerns. Adjacent to the “macroface” of the state, Yu’s poem gently taunts the idea of a national narrative by comparing it with this “writable” construction.

The poem’s description of mediocrity is a covert critique of whiteness. As Richard Dyer discusses, whilst whiteness allows empowered invisibility it concomitantly carries associations (particularly in postcolonial societies) with cultural lack:

whiteness is nothing in particular … white culture and identity have, as it were, no content … culture, distinctive identity, one might say colour, tended to be felt as add-ons to an identity that is not itself distinctive or coloured, that lacks “flavour”.[xxviii]

Yu satirises this lack of flavour in the “domesticated” colonial condition, yet he sets the poem’s you/Yu amongst it. The poem’s tone is neutral and the speaker seeks “nothingness”. And while “The evening walk” doesn’t make an explicit acknowledgement of Indigeneity, the conspicuous qualified – “that / violent and bloody” suggests something unimaginable. Colonial Australia can imagine neither its own bloody violence nor what could be “admirable”; the speaker and the poem dwell in this eternal twilight. In partnership with Yu’s poem “Digging”, “This evening walk” imagines a reversal of the Romantic mode – in which there is no central, lyric “I” to isolate the poem from its culture.

Michael Farrell remarks on how reversals of type “are necessary to avoid the cliché of ‘settled usages’, and not to take the ground of the past for granted”.[xxix] If we consider this strategy in light of a decolonised geopoethics then its effect might be that “the reader’s position is not allowed to rest comfortably with any one of the speaker’s”.[xxx] Yu’s poem continues its walk into the sunset, open-ended.

Reverse Dive

Whilst coastal ocean is often part of Indigenous Country – known, storied, accessed and cared for as a continuum of kinship with land – the subjects in Stuart Cooke’s “Deep Dive” struggle to find comfort in “canyons / filled with Pacific belly”. Colonial Australia has assumed a “settled usage” of the ocean as a cultural signifier; Cooke isn’t the first to displace its association with nativised whiteness, however, like Pilbrow he uses the poem’s form to further a conceptual decentring of speaker and image.

The divers’ descent into the water parodies poems of colonial land exploration, as they ignore the environment’s resistance and construct loud metaphors of their “boldness”:

like lumpy wads of kelp descending

into the mirrors of our own codes

like a bold stripe of ink

slashed down a page

the mooring rope

cleaves the ocean in two


surf swallows us  |  with fierce suck

|                       we jostle

we’re thrown  |  we escape

The divers are comfortable, and not: they observe beauty, as when “damsel fish leap from rock sockets / like cut pockets / of pigment”; yet they are cloven “in two”. “Deep Dive” suggests that language is helping to ease their tense process of descent, as, “full of our lungs”, the words continue downwards, knocked by pressure and tide across the page. The white space is struck with vertical slashes like “trails of cognition”. These seem to be alternative margins for the poem, projected over the page’s limits. In this state of floating discomfort, one diver’s mind becomes “blubbery loam” of “bubble  | thrust / and frantic gorg | ing”. In this mode of dwelling there is “pumped hope”: a revelling in the place that feels as unselfconscious as “utero”, as “poly | p thought” – it is “all speech“. With the removal of the mask underwater, there are just a few moments of estrangement – a “cave blazing” where “memory’s charred” – before the edge of a “cone shell’s  |  spine” interrupts. In pain, the diver is shucked out of their settled state:[xxxi]

|             no turtle gliding off

|             into the invisible next

|            no confident eel winding    |

|                                amongst coral      |


| only depth, compressed                                                         |

to horizon                                             |


young time’s

shed  | like a skin

|   as the pale, wounded snake |

|                        bullets skyward |

The poem gives no literal indication that the diver is non-Indigenous; rather, it is Cooke’s reimagining of physical occupation as a poetic trope, which suggests this reading. Ultimately, the diver’s “young time” is set in contrast to the depth of the environment. As a “pale, wounded snake” moving back to the surface, they have undertaken a metamorphosis. Rather than emerging triumphant from the ocean’s surface, “one” with the element, we imagine the creature wincing and thrashing inelegantly. The first-person voice shifts to third-person description: out of their depth, the diver loses the matey, secure primacy of “we” and its anthropocentric association. It is an unusual settler poem about the “nature” of ocean: neither epic nor lyric, “Deep Dive” dissolves the colonial exploration narrative into a hybrid, mythic mode that leaves the reader suspended under the water, watching the subject “bullet” from view.

Like the other poems mentioned here, “Deep Dive” takes a performative approach to the representation of settler identity and its relationship to Australian environments. These poems attempt to point to their own construction, dislodged from a tradition of landscape poetry. The manner of form and voice, and the way this guides the reading of image and narrative, is provisional or demountable. It is an un-housing of the settler self.

Movement and evaporation


This structure “acknowledges the flow of matter and energy between places … how the existence of one place depends necessarily on that of others”.[xxxii] I’m focusing on how that quality engages with the terms of decolonisation rather than those of ecopoetics – however, it is hard to say where each begins and ends, especially in discussion of inhabitation, terrain and the poetics of space. In the context of Indigenous sovereignty, Cooke’s poem takes responsibility for deconstructing whiteness as it has become solidified within poetic conventions. Not all of the above poems speak from the privilege of whiteness, but they all speak about it as a condition. Each plays with how the image of whiteness “has been constructed, its complexities and contradictions”.[xxxiii] In this way, it enacts Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra’s notion of the “schizoid consciousness” of Australian settlement, exploring the communally formed nature of its voices, identities and images, and dislodging them from a rightful, inevitable relationship with the continent.[xxxiv]

For Michael Farrell, this must include building upon Black activism and poetics; a necessary tool in critiquing whiteness.[xxxv] In his poem “Order”, Farrell directly addresses how the concept of geopoethics intersects with Australia’s history of settlement.[xxxvi] If “Settlement is an order” and “The sacred is an order”, the poem asks, what kind of shape do we want our community to make? What orders the common ground? Farrell compares the “rectangle” of a written poem and the “prism” of a room with the forms of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems “Bora Ring” and “Rainbow Snake”. The ring and the snake reflect the way that human beings move and order themselves as groups:

To reverse Stevens: humans are earth

(Soil stone sand and sea)

They’re not walking maps

From above they are points

(Pyramid points become blobs)

Numbers of people make blobs too

And sometimes rings, snakes

To be ordered, rather than order oneself or one’s group, is to lose identity. Farrell’s poem seems to riff on Cooke’s assertion that:

When the poet and the poem are a part of his or her territory, order will emerge in this territory as a function of the resources available in that place. Order will not be imposed from without and, although outside influences may certainly enter the system (and other elements will leave it), they will do so on the same plane.[xxxvii]

For Farrell, the imposition of order is not simply an historical problem:[xxxviii]

In the “Native Settlements” like Moore River

(Featured in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence)

Young Aboriginal students read the Bible

(Just as they do in juvenile detention now)

At times they were allowed into the bush

And learned from the elders

This apparent contradiction allowed an extension

Of control

As did trivial permissions and underfeeding

The effect of the Stolen Generations is not only

One of history, the story of Gladys Gilligan

For example

Late of Moore River Native Settlement

When I read the language of Aboriginal friends

on Facebook, I see the influence of African America

A marker that they “own”

Just as Christianity differentiates country people

From the faithless urban “arm”

Farrell’s poem looks to an example of common ground: “the Aboriginal petitions of the 1920s-30s / The letters to newspapers / (1940s, 60s) / I’m struck by the theme of friendship / The black hand offered to the white.” Taking this anecdote as a model for decolonised geopoethics, Farrell considers how his poem is a product of shared, overlapping settlements:

It’s not just Cook that makes this poem possible

But the Wurundjeri Council

Their office at Abbotsford Convent

A short bike ride away

From where I write this in my prism

(Seen as a rectangle from above)

Yet I remember the earthquake when

This building moved (relatively) like a snake

“Order” uses the form of allusive assemblage to advance, like John Mateer’s Australian poems, a way through “forced silence, the refusal of speech, deafness, linguistic impossibility and misinterpretation”.[xxxix] Farrell’s poem twists up, around and across a number of optical positions. It also occupies a discursive, atemporal space in which memory and the present moment of reading can happen together. Its lyricism (such as the internal rhyme of “earthquake / snake”) and imagism (“Numbers of people make blobs”) are used subtly. In the tradition of Australian poetry, such modes have often been used as a way of touching and caressing the place in question; a sort of erotic animation of static language. Farrell’s immersion in the place he describes, on the other hand, is refracted through neutral tones and simple diction: an assemblage from which the subject evaporates.

How to be here

This essay suggests just a handful of ways in which Australian settler poetry is listening and responding to the highly active field of contemporary Indigenous writing. By acknowledging “Complicity as a shared language and as a condition of dialogue”, these poems look for ways to remain in the presence of Indigenous dispossession, disrupting the comfortable invisibility of whiteness.[xl] But they need to be interrogated by many readers. These poems are remarkably and sometimes pointedly Anglophone and literary. I have not looked here at the possibilities of non-Indigenous poetry being written in or translated from languages other than English, including oral forms of text. To pretend that my chosen examples were representative of Australian settler poetry would be preposterous. They are reflective of my linguistic limitations as a reader, not to mention my taste as a poet; and the inclusion of my own work here is partly an enactment of Ahmed’s observation that, “the ‘critical’ often functions as a place where we deposit our anxieties”.[xli]

Therefore, these poems need to be seen within a context of attempts, of varying levels of technical or conceptual success, to perform an existential and historical condition – the illegitimacy of Australian settlement. In doing this, we might notice that the discourse of settler identity becomes focused on difference instead of hierarchy. These poems dismiss the possibility of one settler being “more at home” than another. Rather, they imagine common ground whilst avoiding claims upon it, echoing Katrina Schlunke’s question of sovereignty: “Who are strangers?”

Decisions about who belongs and who doesn’t are very complicated ones to make in a settler nation whose nonAboriginal population has no treaty with the owners of the land and who depend upon our beinghereness to continue to be here. Without any formal engagement with Aboriginal sovereignty the importance of following form, of joining the queue, of following the law, who’s law? becomes all.[xlii]

A poem can draw acute attention to the colonial act of “beinghereness”, and in doing so, exceed the colonial necessity to “follow form”. In other words, the decolonised settler poem is a kind of statelessness, a space of readiness to rewrite oneself as a stranger.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004):

Birns, Nicholas, Contemporary Australian Literature, University of Sydney Press, 2015.

Cassidy, Bonny, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty”, Cordite Poetry Review 55 (August 2016):

—- . Final Theory, Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

Cooke, Stuart, “Deep Dive”, Bareknuckle Poet, accessed 4 January 2016:

—-. ed. and trans., The Bulu Line, Puncher & Wattmann, 2015.

—-. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics, Rodopi, 2013.

—-. “Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling”, Cultural Studies Review 17.1 (March 2011)

Crawford, Jen, “Healing Landscapes”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 10.1 (January 2011):

Dyer, Richard, White, Routledge, 1997.

Farrell, Michael, Writing Australian Unsettlement, Palgrave, 2015.

—-. Cocky’s Joy, Giramondo, 2015.

Hodge, Bob and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Allen & Unwin, 1991.

Lucashenko, Melissa, “You Are the Fringes”, in Josie Douglas, ed. Untreated: Poems by Black Writers, Jukurrpa Books, 2001.

Mathews, Freya, “Becoming Native: An Ethos of Countermodernity II”, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, 3.3 (1999).

Minter, Peter, “Introduction”, Plumwood Mountain 3.2 (September 2016):

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen, “I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonizing Society”, in Sarah Ahmed, ed. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, Berg Publishing, 2003.

Narogin, Mudrooroo, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, 1990.

Nicolacopoulos Toula and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins,, 2014.

Pilbrow, Anupama, “Homology”, Cordite Poetry Review 48 (1 November 2014):

Probyn, Fiona, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic of Whiteness”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004):

Read, Peter, Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Rose, Deborah Bird, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW Press, 2004.

Rutherford, Jennifer and Barbara Holloway, eds. Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces, UWAP, 2010.

Schlunke, Katrina, “Sovereign Hospitalities?”, Borderlands 1.2 (2002):

Watson, Irene, “Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?”, in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ed. Sovereign Subjects, Allen & Unwin, 2007.

Whittaker, Alison, “How I Write”, The Suburban Review (April 28, 2016):

Yu, Ouyang, Fainting with Freedom, Five Islands Press, 2015.


[i] Peter Minter, “Introduction”, Plumwood Mountain 3.2 (September 2016):

[ii] See Bonny Cassidy, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty”, Cordite Poetry Review 55 (August 2016):

[iii] Cassidy, “Unbidden”, np.

[iv] Minter, “Introduction”, np.

[v] Mudrooroo Narogin, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, 1990, p165.

[vi] Melissa Lucashenko, “You Are the Fringes”, in Josie Douglas, ed. Untreated: Poems by Black Writers, Jukurrpa Books, 2001, p34.

[vii] Alison Whittaker, “How I Write”, The Suburban Review, April 28, 2016:

[viii] Anupama Pilbrow, “homology”, Cordite Poetry Review 48 (1 November 2014):

[ix] Jennifer Rutherford, “Introduction: Kairos for a Wounded Country”, in Jennifer Rutherford and Barbara Holloway, eds. Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces, UWAP, 2010, p6.

[x] Jennifer Rutherford, “Undwelling; Or Reading Bachelard in Australia”, in Rutherford and Holloway, eds. Halfway House, pp114-115.

[xi] Nicholas Birns, Contemporary Australian Literature, University of Sydney Press, 2015, p123.

[xii] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW Press, 2004, p189.

[xiii] Bonny Cassidy, Final Theory, Giramondo Publishing, 2014, p44.

[xiv] Cassidy, Final Theory, p53.

[xv] Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics, Rodopi, 2013, p187.

[xvi] Stuart Cooke, “Echo-Coherence: Moving on from Dwelling”, Cultural Studies Review 17.1 (March 2011), pp243-4.

[xvii] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, pp243-4.

[xviii] See Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p235; Freya Mathews, “Becoming Native: An Ethos of Countermodernity II”, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 3.3 (1999), p261.

[xix] Peter Read, Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[xx] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p235.

[xxi] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonizing Society”, in Sara Ahmed, ed. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, Berg Publishing, 2003, p27.

[xxii] Irene Watson, “Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?’, in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ed. Sovereign Subjects, Allen & Unwin, 2007, p18.

[xxiii] Cooke, “Echo-Coherence”, p231.

[xxiv] Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian Philosophy of Origins,, 2014, p24.

[xxv] Stuart Cooke, ed. and trans., The Bulu Line, Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, p26.

[xxvi] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p32.

[xxvii] Ouyang Yu, Fainting with Freedom, Five Islands Press, 2015, p37.

[xxviii] Richard Dyer, White, Routledge, 1997, p9.

[xxix] Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement, Palgrave, 2015, p25.

[xxx] Cooke, The Bulu Line, p19.

[xxxi] Stuart Cooke, “Deep Dive”, Bareknuckle Poet, accessed 4 January 2016:

[xxxii] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p32.

[xxxiii] Dyer, White, p11.

[xxxiv] Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Allen & Unwin, 1991, vxi.

[xxxv] Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004):

[xxxvi] An illuminating context to the poem’s allusions and understanding of “order” can be found in Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement, pp153-174.

[xxxvii] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p113.

[xxxviii] Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy, Giramondo, 2015, pp76-78.

[xxxix] Jen Crawford, “Healing Landscapes”, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 10.1 (January 2011):

[xl] Fiona Probyn, “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic of Whiteness”, Borderlands 3.2 (2004):

[xli] Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness”, np.

[xlii] Katrina Schlunke, “Sovereign Hospitalities?”, Borderlands 1.2 (2002):

Published: January 2017
Bonny  Cassidy

Bonny Cassidy’s most recent book of poetry is Final Theory (Giramondo, 2014). She is feature reviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review and lectures in Creative Writing at RMIT University.


The Songs of Others: Contemporary Poetics and the More-than-human

by Stuart Cooke

This essay considers the presence of animal or non-human language in a selection of twentieth century and contemporary poems. Of course, critical discussion of the representation of animals and plants in poetry is hardly unusual in the growing number of forums for ecocriticism. Less common, however, is attention to those moments when a poet attempts to provide space in his or her poem for the poetry of the animals and plants themselves. So, focusing first on poems by Tomas Tranströmer and Eugenio Montejo, in which turns to the non-human are quite common, I want to ask why non-human languages are so important in their work. From here I will map out a series of concerns that are often entangled with the presence of animal voices in poetry, involving examples from a number of Australian and North and South American poets, including Les Murray, Judith Wright, Pablo Neruda and José Emilio Pacheco. The aim here is not to provide an historical account of the evolution and tradition of animalistic poetic forms, or literary ‘bestiaries’, as they are often referred to, but rather to give a sense of the function and importance of such forms in modern and contemporary practice, and to show how, regardless of geographical location, many such poems turn to the animal as part of a similar route of exploration. These poems gesture towards the possibility of poetry beyond the human, just as recent critical theory has also attempted to venture beyond the human in the analysis of concepts such as “body”, “text” and “culture”. At the same time, there is a palpable absence within critical discourse of a sense of what, exactly, some of these more-than-human poetic forms might be. As Kate Rigby argues, however, cultivating an attention to the calls of the non-human might recover “the semiosis of the more-than-human world” and help Western societies “to overcome the perilous condition of self-enclosure” that renders us “dangerously oblivious” to our relations with other creatures.[i] Thus, the final part of the essay will be a case study of a tango lyric from Argentina, which tells of the disappearance of a South American sparrow known as the chingolo. In an effort to recover something of the chingolo’s song, I conclude with a reading of contemporary chingolo poetics.

Poetry beyond the Human

The presence of animals in art “radically disrupts” any idea that what we think of as “the environment” is a solid, singular entity, Timothy Morton argues, most particularly because their independent movements immediately contradict the notion that the environment might be controlled by us.[ii] Animals are the most vital reminders that the world, and the art within it, is not only a human space. Indeed, for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the-animal-in-the-artwork is a sign post for the very edge of human awareness. For them, the intersection of rational thought and the surrounding world can be located in this art-animal, most particularly in the literary work. In such cases, “[w]e think and write for the animals themselves”, they say, “We become animal so that the animal also becomes something else”. The aim of such art is not to produce limp, inert representations of something else, but rather to initiate reactions at those liminal regions at the edges of ourselves, to translate, as much as to be translated, from human to non-:

The agony of a rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into another […] Becoming is always double, and it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth.[iii]

The transference, the “zone of exchange”, between human and animal in the literary text leaves residues of each on the other. It is my intention here to locate some of these zones in a range of poems, to find moments when spaces open so that the non-human might engage in a particularly human domain (printed language). This will not be all, however, because of the “double” nature of such becomings: from these zones it is indeed true that exciting kinds of invention emerge, but what is the implication of such “new earth” in the colonised, contested landscapes of Australia and the Americas?

Many of the poems I mention here are from the middle- to late-twentieth century; as such, they anticipate the ecological and “post-human” turns in contemporary critical theory. Scholars like Vicky Kirby and Timothy Morton have made important claims for the thoroughly ecological features of textual discourse, and for its inextricability from what we might have thought were more “natural” or “biological” systems, which involve not only other flora and fauna, but also the electro-chemical forces of which we are all composed. Kirby, for example, makes a compelling case for putting aside our “fear of opening the concept ‘text’ to an outside whose determinations do not begin and end with the human subject”.[iv] More bluntly, Morton argues that “[l]ife forms cannot be said to differ in a rigorous way from texts”.[v] Against “containing the contagion of language within the human repository”,[vi] Kirby shows that all life, rather than human cultures alone, “is an in-formational bio-logy whose involvements have little respect for species division”. In Kirby’s formulation, human language is but an aspect of “a general and generative field of expressivity”, part of which also includes the languages of other animals and of the supposedly inert, physical matter on which living systems rely.[vii] For Morton, too, a text itself “has no thin, rigid boundary, what it includes, what it touches, must also consist of life forms, Earth itself, and so on”.[viii] In the accounts of both scholars, albeit via different routes, that previously rarefied domain of Culture – language and code – is shown to bleed into and be inseparable from the generative forces of Nature. Morton’s description of a forest is particularly resonant in this regard:

Forests appear “natural”, yet they follow the quite logical order of algorithms programmed by tree genomes. An algorithm is a script – a text – that automates a function, or functions, and in this case the script is coded directly into matter.[ix]

As a poetics, such theory leads to a decidedly messy, or open-ended, conception of poetry. Indeed, my discussion of the ways that human poems search for other kinds of poems – other, non-human kinds of poetic language – can be situated within contemporary ecopoetical discussions, particularly to do with Jonathan Skinner’s understanding of ecopoetics as “the pursuit of connections that reach beyond the human sphere of interest and also […] beyond the frame of the artwork or poem”.[x]

To reiterate, I’m not interested in the simple representation of plants or animals in poetry here, or in talking about which animals are present in poetry, and how or when they relate to human subjects and speakers. Rather, I am talking about moments in certain poems where a gesture is made to a non-human poetry or song, or to an art that lies outside the domain(s) of human culture(s). In an early Tomas Tranströmer poem, for example, the elegiac nature of the verse, its dedication to a human body which will decay and re-enter cycles of decomposition and regrowth, leads the young Swedish poet to envision a music structured by the rhythms of a non-human world:

Beyond, the black cock crooning of the spheres.

Guiltless in our shadow, Music, like

the fountain’s water rising among beasts

artfully turned to stone around the spray.

With the violin bows now as a forest.

The violin bows like rigging in a downpour—

the cabin flung under the downpour’s hooves—

a gyroscope’s suspension is us, joy.

(TomasTranströmer, “Elegy”)

What the poem leaves us with is “Music’s mute half”, which is discernible only when its more audible partner is absent, “like the smell of resin / from the thunder-injured spruce”.[xi] Then, as if to pursue such music, a later poem invites us into the root system of a “squat pine”, within which, like the roots themselves, “I you she he also branch out” beyond human thought and space. The act of perception which is integral to this poem – the observation of this pine tree – also relies on this very tree: the pine tree is not an object, but is rather like a kind of cybernetic (or symbiotic) enhancement to the senses of the otherwise solitary poet: “It feels”, he writes, “as if my five senses were linked to another creature”.[xii]

We can approach the set of forces that often combine to produce such cross-creaturely “linkages” in some poems by Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo. The poem (and poet) needs to acknowledge its relationality with things otherwise considered external to it. Most famous of relevant examples from Montejo, perhaps, is “The Trees”, whose thoughts are so “vague” and “fragmented” that they could barely fill “the shortest book”. The trees “speak so little” but when the poet finally hears the voice of one, it comes through the “shriek” of a black thrush:

I realized that in his voice a tree was speaking,

one of so many,

but I don’t know what to do with this sharp deep sound,

I don’t know in what type of script

I could set it down.[xiii]

The lines above are the poem’s last: an admission of ignorance. The work’s function, therefore, is not to take us to a place to which the poet, by virtue of his privileged insight, has been granted access. Rather, the poem reveals an edge of sorts, where it points to what lies beyond. Importantly, however, that “beyond” is not hidden within the depths of another being, or another order of existence, where it remains forever beyond reach. The beyond, in the context of a poet like Montejo (and indeed, of Tranströmer), is a vast, complicated series of entanglements; its externality to us, and to the poem, is precisely what grants us, and the poem, relation to other things. In “The Rooster’s Song”, for example, the song begins “outside the rooster” but, during the course of the night, it falls “drop by drop” into his body:

Uncontainable, the song fills the rooster

like a deep pitcher;

it fills his feathers, his crest, his spurs

until its enormous cry breaks the limit of his being

and rings out,

spilling without pause down the length of the world.

Then, after leaving the body of the rooster, the song continues, “outside / scattered in the black wind”.[xiv] Here, song and poetry are part of a worldly, indirect discourse passing through all manner of bodily forms. That the poet can participate in such discourse, whether as writer or reader, implies necessarily that others can as well; what Kirby would call “the archive of the world” is here present in every word, in “the flesh” of all kinds of creatures.[xv]

For Montejo, that “worldly archive” is what Peter Boyle translates as “earthdom” (la terredad). Montejo’s earthdom is the condition by which something takes part in the earth’s processes, it is a thing’s “earthiness”, we could say. Or, in avian terms:

The earthdom of a bird is its song,

what leaves its breast and returns to the world … [xvi]

Crucially, earthdom is not a concept of the-world-itself. It does not refer to a container or a unified thing, within which different parts can be discerned. Rather, it provides a “fundamental and surprisingly minimalist cohesion”,[xvii] it is a dynamic energy that manifests in different creatures in different ways and which, by virtue of “its travelling wings”,[xviii] grants possibilities for relation. Montejo’s earthdom can therefore be contrasted with conceptions of the earth as an empty container, into which things like flora and fauna are then placed. Such conceptions are largely derived, argues Morton, from the German Romanticism of Humboldt and Herder. Here, organisms can be inserted or removed from the environment, but the ontological status of “the environment” remains unchanged; in other words, the environment is a transcendent sign. With the benefits of modern biology, however, we know that “[e]nvironments coevolve with organisms”. As Morton writes, “The world looks the way it does because of life forms … there is no special ‘environment’ separate from [them]”.[xix] We can see the legacy of Romantic thought, and particularly German Romantic thought, in all kinds of moves to “unify” experience into a coherent whole, or to bring together those parts that – it is insisted – have been unjustly separated. Words like “nature”, “the environment”, “Gaia” and even “ecology” bear to various degrees the traces of transcendent conflations of innumerable, not necessarily compatible, systems. In part, too, this legacy persists in areas of contemporary biology, where the emphasis of research is on collective accounts of ecological systems and biomass, rather than, as biosemiotician Stephen Pain argues, on the experiences, perceptions and “exploits” of particular organisms.[xx]

Differing from the German Romantics, the explicit yearning in poems like those I’ve looked at so far is towards dialogues that can only ever take place with particular creatures. The poetics of such work is thus specifically ecological, which is to say that a notion of “landscape’” is forgone in favour of an understanding of a world that exists as a function of – not a container for – different creatures. The poem, therefore, works not to evoke a pictorial assortment of various objects that produce an aesthetic affect, or to represent “the land” or “the environment” (which, because composed by it, is necessarily delimited by the poet’s language). Rather than producing an aesthetic luminosity, the poetry proposes an ethical position which results from interpersonal relation, not dissimilar to Gary Snyder’s expanded “moral compass”.[xxi] Instead of attempting containment, these poems have explicitly open ends that are not finalised by the stance of the poem itself. That is, the turn towards the trees or the rooster is an invitation that cannot, of course, be accepted (such beings – in these poems, at least – do not write), but the poet is cognisant of this: he is prepared for his poem to be left wanting, rather than to claim it stakes out a clear territory. At the same time, however, the gesture to the plant or animal isn’t towards some unreachable or divine absence: these pleas are too pointed, too specific; it is as if the others are indeed present in the composition, and would be visibly so, were it not for the faulty recording technology of the traditional, human-composed verse. Later in this essay I will show how, in the reading of another poem, we can remove the “as if” from the last part of the previous sentence.

Songs Hidden under the Wake of Environmental Destruction

In poems like these, there is an explicit recognition that music and poetry are not found purely within the domains of humans; indeed, the presence of poetry throughout the world signals the way that things in the world – by being able to create and listen to such music – become part of, and help to make, the world. But rather than steer the discussion towards what would be a literary history of Romantic thought, I want to ask why such turns are made so often, and so powerfully, across a range of contemporary cultural contexts. To return to Tranströmer’s oeuvre, for instance, these turns occur repeatedly, and a later poem provides a clue as to why:

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language

I went to the snow-covered island.

The wild does not have words.

The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!

I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.

Language but no words.[xxii]

Here there is, of course, the illustration of language as both an act of sounding and of inscription, as opposed to a schemata of symbolic “words” that conventionally might be confined to the realm of “human culture”. No doubt, the poem would be of interest to a Derridean scholar like Kirby. But what is it about the poem as a form of expression, and the act of writing it, that provides a space for this stark illustration of non-human language to occur? The answer is to be found in the first line: the poet is “[t]ired”; he seeks solace. Overwhelmed by waves and waves of words, he escapes to an island, where at last he might recover sufficient energy to listen to other kinds of language. Crucially, however, the poem enacts this peace; it is less than a quarter of the page, leaving us with blankness beneath. What tumultuous, tiresome experiences might have led the poet here have been cleaned away before the poem has begun. “Beneath” such cream-white blankness, therefore, is the hint of a frenzied, destructive, and increasingly meaningless world, where language, like everything else, approaches pure commodity.

If escape to an island isn’t possible, however, then this more-than-wordly language might remain hidden, as in the case of Montejo’s “Hidden Song”.[xxiii] Yet it is not so much that what is hidden is necessarily invisible, but rather that it cannot be clearly distinguished from other things:

I couldn’t distinguish the bird from the song.

I heard whispers, sudden blasts, chords,

golden oracles in droplets …

The conflation of material and vibration – of bird and song – and of a variety of language and sound forms – whispering, sharp blasts and musical chords – suggests not only a cacophony, but also a state of incomprehension, similar to the experience of listening to another language with which one is completely unfamiliar. Key here, however, is the way in which the poet responds: putting aside the question of whether such discordance is the modulation of “ancient sound”, or the contamination of “this hour … with machines”, he begins to write, to “jot down”. Writing too, then, also becomes entangled in this medley of indecipherability: the poem is littered with phrases that emphasise the speaker’s inability to clearly read what is going on (“I couldn’t distinguish … ”; “ … I didn’t know … ”; “ … I didn’t even know … ”; “ … I don’t know … ”). Where the Tranströmer poem took us to that place from which the deer tracks in the snow could be seen quite clearly, “Hidden Song” barely manages to inscribe “one line of [the bird’s] shadow”. Nevertheless, each poem is in some important sense written by a non-human presence, be it the way the poem opens out into space written by deer tracks in “March” or the “jotted down” notes of “Hidden Song”.

In part though, I’d suggest, the differences in what is seen in each poem are to do with the simple fact that semi-tropical and tropical Venezuelan ecologies are far more complex, and far more overwhelming in their complexity, than a Swedish winter landscape. But this is only “half” the issue, because it is also true that Montejo is dealing with a significantly more disruptive set of social and political stimuli. As Montejo scholar Miguel Gomes points out, he “is a poet, but also a Venezuelan or Latin American poet – which entails a very concrete set of social references”. When Montejo began publishing poetry books in the 60s and 70s, Venezuela was undergoing profound economic and social change, showing the signs of what Gomes calls a “vigorous capitalist spatiality”. Older, feudal property relations were dissolving, causing

the new commodification of rural and urban land; the geographical concentration of both labor and industrial production in urban centers, with the concomitant disintegration of earlier forms of urban and rural life; and, last but not least, the divorce of residence and work place … [xxiv]

Gomes’s points usefully emphasise the fact that Montejo is writing very much in resistance to a process that he understands to be destructive. In Gomes’s own words:

It is hardly surprising that Montejo chose to speak of trees, birds, roosters, oxen, horses, forests, and cicadas – topics having little or nothing at all to do with the only political or material reality imaginable back then.[xxv]

These animals, and the earthly poetry in which they participate, are, therefore, the end point of a decidedly political poetics. But the politics are not reductively pastoral, which is to say that Montejo isn’t interested in simply contrasting an [idyllic] Venezuelan past with the decaying present. Instead, he is looking for ways out of the grotesque quagmire of neocaudillismo that has overrun Venezuelan space;[xxvi] seeking to articulate the art of other creatures, then, is an attempt to articulate, and activate, a contemporary and radically alternative polis. Non-human poetics orient the poet’s yearning for an alternate state of affairs, which alludes to a wake of appalling colonial and industrial destruction.

As one might expect, given the region’s history, we can find similar situations in the work of a variety of South American poets. In poems like “God Undresses in the Rain” (Dios se desnuda en la lluvia) and “It Wasn’t Necessary” (No era necesario) by Argentinian Juan L. Ortiz (1896-1978), the earth is alive with a creative, and very seductive, spirit. While God undresses, birds sing and plants dance; God’s clothes rain down to catalyse an operatic crescendo:

Rain, rain!

God’s springtime


that falls dancing, dancing … [xxvii]

For Ortiz, then, the divine is manifest in an earthly creativity:

It wasn’t necessary to look to the sky nor to the branches.

I saw you here, in the pure earth, in the naked earth.

I saw you here, spring spirit, dancing or burning serenely like joy

without name … [xxviii]

Again, as for Montejo, the earth is not configured in grand scale as “Nature”, but rather “as confidant and friend”, or as a variety of zones in which intimate relations can take place.[xxix] Just as importantly, however, Ortiz’s search for intimate or “naked” relation with the earth is motivated by the destruction of such intimacy elsewhere. Similar to Monetjo, and also to Pablo Neruda (who I mention further below), the natural world for Ortiz is the base of all history. Where Montejo’s “earthdom” expresses a “primordial and always necessary union between culture and anything material existing independently of human beings”,[xxx] Ortiz’s Marxist, materialist poetics mean that, similarly, material conditions – the land, its environments – must provide the template for human morality.[xxxi]

In the next part of this essay I will turn to focus more squarely on a comparative reading of a set of Australian and Latin American poetry. Before doing so, however, it is useful to refer to a book that in many ways “bridges” the Pacific space that I am about to leap back and forth across myself. As the title suggests, Jeffrey Yang’s An Aquarium (2008) is a marine bestiary, specifically of Pacific species ranging in size and existential order from abalone and kelp to orcas and the United States. Expansive both in geographical and cultural terms, the book embraces Chinese and US poetics, Pacific histories, plus Arabic, Indian and European cultural references. Each poem in the collection is named after a different species, but the poems aren’t simply caricatures of different marine life. Instead, Yang’s creatures are inseparable from the social ecologies he enacts to describe them:

The life phases of a parrotfish

are expressed in colors. By day,

the parrotfish replenishes coral reef

sands, and by night spins

its mucous cocoon bed-

room. Is this art’s archetype

abstracted from politics?

Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de-

sac. The CIA loved Abstract

Expressionism … [xxxii]

Like the poem above, much of An Aquarium shifts between marine and human worlds in order to illustrate, on a Pacific scale, the impact of US-led imperialism and over-consumption. By the end of the collection, Pacific biology has become completely inseparable from the history of US military expansion; a poem about a species of algae called “zooxanthellae” locates its subject by excavating the remains of dead coral from the islands of Bikini Atoll, site of atomic bomb tests held by the USA after World War 2. As the poem’s lines balloon, so too does the sickness of the ecosystem it describes. Finally, after scientists from the US Department of Energy have finished their investigations into the lingering effects of radiation, we discover the zooxanthellae in “the skeletons of the coral”. They are the keys to all relation, “subsisting in an evolutionary relationship intimately defined by mutualism”, but the vectors for their symbioses have been severed by radioactive poison.[xxxiii] Of all the moments in poems in which animals become protagonists, this is one of the most revealing: An Aquarium has compelled us to a point where it is no longer possible to think of any kind of ecology, let alone the relationships between organisms of which any ecology will be composed, without also considering its destruction. This is the last poem in the collection, and on the following page the book ends with an epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne: “ … there is something in us that can be without us and will be after us … ”.[xxxiv] This “something” is what “opens” the text in Morton’s or Kirby’s terms, and it is a thing’s capacity for earthdom in Montejo’s. In Yang’s aquatic parliament, it is a force mobilised in an effort to animate non-human forms with human language, and to return to them something of the polis that industrial, twentieth century humans have destroyed.

Animal Colonies

Often, however, the poet’s search for the voice of an animal can indicate a more subtle movement towards the edge of the colonial frontier, where the limits of one knowledge system need to be exchanged for the requirements of another. In the English language, some of the great examples of this can be found in Les Murray’s oeuvre. Perhaps Murray’s most remarkable collection, Translations from the Natural World (1992) forgoes the geo-political contextualisation of a book like Yang’s Aquarium to explore new possibilities for syntax and grammar as a method of articulating a variety of highly distinct animal worlds. The book could seem like an innocent, if mesmerising, bestiary of various Australian native and agrarian flora and fauna, were it not part of a larger body of work that includes poems like ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ (from Ethnic Radio, 1977). The most famous of all Murray’s poems, the “Song Cycle” maps a topography of Eastern Australia according to the syntactical and mythological echoes of [an English translation of] a Wonguri-Mandjikai song cycle from North East Arnhem Land.

In Spanish, on the other hand, José Emilio Pacheco’s Álbum de zoología (1985, published in English as An Ark for the Next Millenium, 1993) is a major example of a search for the non-human in which the animal cannot be separated from – is bound to – the human. As Analise DeGrave points out, many of the animals in the Álbum “are not presented in their original, ‘untouched’ state” but, instead, their existence is defined by the negative effects of humans on the non-human world:[xxxv]

Born here in this cage, the first lesson

I, the baboon, learned was that

in every direction I look this world is

bars and more bars.

Everything I see is striped

like the bars of a tiger’s pelt.[xxxvi]

Rather than conflating human-urban and animal-natural worlds in an a-historical moment of ecological crisis, however, Pachecho’s work is actually founded on a keen appreciation of the historical symbiosis of urban development and environmental destruction. From an earlier collection, for example, the poem “Los vigesémicos” makes reference to The Anonymous Manuscript of Tlateloco, an indigenous testimony of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. For DeGrave, such references underscore the point that, for Pachecho, the legacy of environmental destruction did not begin in the twentieth century, “but rather with the Conquest [of the Americas]”.[xxxvii]

In large measure, what books like these exemplify is something of a nomadic transgression from one ontological field to another. The poet leaves behind “the inscriptions of a settled people”, to paraphrase W. S. Merwin, in search for the “words on a journey”.[xxxviii] A poet who migrates in this manner, according to Aaron Moe, is the poet “who is willing to learn new steps”.[xxxix] Walking across the earth is no simple solution, however, but instead might be, in the words of Paul Carter, “a system for translating the country into a blank page, a facsimile ready for the imperial imprint”.[xl] Still, one-sided or otherwise, such nomadic experiments with “new steps” indicate a partial dissolution of the colonial frontier, of the frontier between imperial reason and progress, on the one side, and dumb, animal land on the other. In the case of poets like Murray and Pachecho, then, the search for an animal’s language is also tied to a form of decolonialism, or an “unlearning” of a different, inherited set of poetics brought from far across an ocean.

But at what cost, such a “partial dissolution”? In Moe’s fascinating account of how Whitman’s poetic forms “reach toward” other creatures, for example, we must be mindful of how such “reaching” was also part of Whitman’s fantasies about nationalist unification, in which all parts, human or otherwise, were to form a new, English-language nation state.[xli] In contemporary English-language literature, the archetypal narrative of opening towards the non-human at the edges of a colonised landscape could be David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1993), where the prototypical poet-in-exile, Ovid, seeks to develop a lexicon for the strange, new worlds surrounding Tomis, an outpost of the Roman Empire. In seeking a harmonious relation with these unknown lands, however, colonial histories of frontier violence are seemingly obscured by a reconciliation which enables and seeks to complete the colonial project.[xlii] The case of Les Murray, and in particular his problematic adaptation of R. M. Berndt’s translation of “Song Cycle of the Moon Bone” for “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”, is much-discussed and I won’t add to it here, suffice to say that any internet search for the original Wonguri-Mandjikai cycle will result in a barrage of entries about its relationship to Murray’s work: in this case, for whatever motives the poet might have had, Murray’s poem has consumed and all but over-ridden the Arnhem Land sequence.

Elsewhere I have discussed the problematic, colonialist implications of some of Judith Wright’s work, too.[xliii] Wright, a keen critic of some of Murray’s views,[xliv] is much more wary about colonial appropriation than Murray, but her poetic imagination, nevertheless, often extends well beyond the limits of the colonial frontier. For example, one of her most famous poems, “Bora Ring” (from The Moving Image, 1946), is premised on the very process of cultural erosion that we might argue has occurred in the wake of Murray’s song cycle. That is, the Aboriginal cultures to which it refers have vanished into the earth, and their “song is gone”. The poem leaves us, as I have written elsewhere, “with the haunting sense of this inevitability, which is to say it ignores those who did not die … ”.[xlv] Again, however, as for Murray and Pachecho, Wright’s excavation of indigenous presence – this time in the form of a Bora Ring, as opposed to a song-cycle or an anonymous manuscript – comes as part of an oeuvre of which much is also devoted to the detailed study and observation of Australian animals and plants, particularly birds. But just as Wright was more wary of straying into Aboriginal cultural realms than Murray, so too does she steer clear of entering into the fabulous, non-human semantics that Murray explores in Translations from the Natural World. Instead, poems like “Lyrebirds” (from Birds, 1962), are almost possessed by a fear of touching the Other, so adamantly do they make clear their inability to see it. A magnificent, Orphic “master”, bearing “like a crest the symbol of his art”, the lyrebird nevertheless “ought to be left secret, alone”.[xlvi]

Regardless of the particularities of Wright’s or Murray’s poetics, in each case it seems that the purported source of energy for the poems – be it native fauna or an Indigenous cultural form – is obscured for the sake of a particular kind of decolonial aesthetic. This poetic is premised on the adoption of forms that are sourced from the new territory, yet at the very same time it needs to assume the death, or invisibility, of such forms in order to be successful. In these poems, the step towards “newness” – be it anthropological or zoological – also involves stepping on this newness. Indeed, this partial, conditional dissolution of the colonial frontier, of the barrier between territories of colonial, printed languages and unusual zoologies, continues to manifest in various ways in even the most recent poetry publications. Although Australian poetry might have become much more cosmopolitan since the 1980s and 90s, certain colonialist preoccupations are still common, particularly in relation to the representation of animals. In some recent collections in which bestiaries play significant parts, the recurrence of dominant, local themes, to do with how animals must deal with an uninspiring, almost lifeless Australian environment, suggests that the imagination of these animals is also the imagination of their destitution.

Again, we can find revealing correlations in an investigation of Latin American poetics. In Canto general (1950), Pablo Neruda assumes the premature disappearance of Andean peoples in “Las alturas de Machu Picchu” after he has established, in elaborate detail, a vast, Latin American cornucopia of plants and animals.[xlvii] In turn, DeGrave identifies “indigenous” or “native” utopias in Ernesto Cardenal’s work, where Native American cultures represent those societies that are “lost, tarnished or threatened”:

One feature that repeats in Cardenal’s treatment of these utopias is a connection between the tribe, land and nature. […] one finds a pattern. The poet first describes the tribe’s beliefs [about] the relationship between humans and the natural world. At some point in the poems, Cardenal then details their destruction and loss.[xlviii]

In instances like these, what is important is not simply to repeat the point that indigenous people are grouped together with a larger body of indigenous fauna near extinction. Rather, my point here is that in many cases of post-colonial poetics, the opening in the space of the poem towards the voice of the non-human, the apparent search for a language beyond the alphabet, those important instances of “zoopoetics” that are of interest to scholars like Aaron Moe, can actually signify broader, darker themes of colonial appropriation. In such cases, the search for the animal correlates with a search for alterity: the journey is to the other side of the frontier. Crucially, however, what the poet finds there is rarely able to speak for him or herself, but is instead silenced in the coffin of the English or Spanish poem.

Ironically, perhaps, the productive value of such poetry is enormous because, if we are aware of its problems, the work prompts us to look elsewhere for alternatives. A particularly poignant example of this situation is a celebrated Argentinian tango lyric from the late 1930s. Edmundo Bianchi’s “Ya no cantas, chingolo” was recorded in 1928 with music by Antonio Scatasso, and has subsequently been collected in a major collection of tango lyrics that spans much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[xlix] The song tells of the disappearance of a small, South American sparrow known as the Chingolo or chingolito (the Rufous-Collared Sparrow; Zonotrichia capensi) and – importantly – explicitly sources its musical heritage in the bird’s song. The opening verse recalls a time now passed, when this little bird of the pampas “sung a song / so sad, it was as if / a heart was crying”. This “wild bird”, the song continues, was scared away by the arrival of the steam engine, so that now “his peerless song / is heard no longer”. The stanza ends with an impassioned lament:

Poor little gaucho bird!

Where have you gone to die?

The rest of the lyric builds upon this lament. The chingolo, we learn, is most likely “crying” his song in solitude. By fusing an instrument of the folk tradition with the landscape, the bird becomes the “guitar of the countryside”, a gaucho-like minstrel who has taken with him “all the tradition”. Bird and guitar are separated again somewhat in the following stanza, primarily to make the point that, just like the gaucho himself, the chingolo’s song rose into the sky where it glimmered at night like “the divine Southern Cross”. But now the song has been silenced, and both gaucho and chingolo have fled, because the pampas have been invaded by “jazz, gringos and Ford”. The conflation of the gaucho’s music with the chingolo’s, and of a folk [tango] tradition with an indigenous fauna, is cemented in the closing lines of the song:

Guitar of the countryside,

voice of loneliness,

since you left

we’ve forgotten how to sing.

What is also important here is the fact that the bird’s name, “chingolo”, comes from the Quechua, ch’ekkóllo.[l] A very complicated set of inter-cultural relationships is at work in the lyric, therefore: while the bird’s name signifies the translation of a South American language into a colonial one, and with it the way in which Indigenous South American cultures are important stores of ecological knowledge, the name has subsequently been fully appropriated by colonial European-Argentinian culture in order to pose a resistance against further colonisation. That is, the bird’s perilous population status can now be correlated with the perilous status of colonial culture in the face of waves of neo-colonialism from the north, while its status as a symbol of displacements that have already occurred is all but completely forgotten.

It’s no casual association, either, that of the chingolo with the gaucho. The link is an explicitly anti-imperial one, where imperialism refers to North American and European powers. After all, in what many consider to be Argentina’s national epic, Martín Fierro by José Hernández (1872-79), the gaucho becomes a famous symbol not only of Argentine tradition, but also of resistance against Europeanisation. Somewhat more problematically, however, Hernández’s gaucho was enlisted to fight at the frontier against the “invasions” of Native American peoples. In “Ya no me cantas”, therefore, the necessary link between the destruction of habitat and the destruction of indigenous peoples’ cultures is elided in favour of a nascent sense of Argentinian nationalism, implicit in which is a darkly racist, and even genocidal, undercurrent. This manifests not only in the staunch rejection of all “foreign” cultural forms (jazz, for example), but in the severing of the link between chingolo, frontier and Quechua cultures.

Much of this is brought into stark relief by the editor’s notes on the song. The bird, writes José Gobello, along with the ombu tree (el ombú) in which it is often found, could be a symbol of the destruction of both Argentinian cultural and biological diversity. He continues:

Due to ignorance, development or commercial interests, animal and plant species were introduced into our territory that displaced and, in some cases, replaced the indigenous flora and fauna.

The chingolo’s natural habitat was gradually taken over by a European immigrant, the sparrow (el gorrión), which spread rapidly and became a veritable plague.

But something else was needed to make our small friend really feel like he had been invaded.

The growth of the cities, the cacophony of the steam engines and the highways, and especially the disappearance of green, virgin spaces, forced him to nest in weedy shrubs, and now he is on the way towards extinction.

Will the chingolo’s song, just like the gaucho’s, remain in the void, where lie those things that have vanished forever?[li]

The prior impact of all indigenous civilisations is erased with the evocation of “green, virgin spaces”. Not only is the complicated historical relationship between indigenous and frontier interests neglected here in order to affirm the transcendental supremacy of the nation state (those vast spaces have become “our territory”), but this nation state includes “indigenous flora and fauna” that need to be protected from “a European immigrant”. That European immigrant, however, does not refer to the vast majority of human Argentinians who claim such heritage, but to a non-human. In other words, there is a common, late-colonial double-play at work, correlates of which we can find in numerous instances of Australian and North American literature as well: indigenous humans are excluded (because they threaten the nation state) while indigenous non-humans are included, and indeed are happily incorporated into the culture of the nation state; on the other hand, non-indigenous humans – provided they share the European heritage of the nation state – are included, while non-human, non-indigenous animals are scorned, with the exception of a few species. In sum, indigenous peoples and non-indigenous animals lose out (see Figure 1). However, and most importantly, just as indigenous people have been consigned to countless dead ‘voids’ of their own in much colonialist poetry, the chingolo, beloved and acceptable as it may be, is also irretrievable.

Figure 1: Colonialist inclusions and exclusions in “Ya no cantas, chingolo”

  Non-human animal Human animal

* Non-indigenous humans are granted a form of indigeneity by virtue of their being members of the colonialist nation state.

The Chingolo’s Response to ‘Ya no me cantas, chingolo’

After centuries of writing about the experiences of indigenous peoples, and of confining scholarly discussion of their arts to the realms of archaeology and classical anthropology, recognition and appreciation of indigenous cultural expression has grown exponentially in the past half-century. We are well-aware of the immense value of their burgeoning contemporary publishing cultures in Australia, North America and a range of Latin American countries – in part because of their sophistication and complexity, and in part because they are such powerful means of resistance against imperialism.[lii] But what of the other creatures whose lives and cultures have been altered irrevocably by the arrival of Europeans? After all, if we are to accept that indigenous peoples are indeed the First Nations of continents like Australia, part of this acceptance must involve a serious recognition of indigenous cosmologies. Invariably in such cosmologies, non-human animals are as integral to conceptualisations of “land”, “country” and “culture” as the people themselves. What happens if, following developments in critical animal studies and ethology, literary critics acknowledge that many of these creatures also have their own rich traditions of poetics? Just as Indigenous American and Australian cultures have been profoundly impacted by European colonisation and oppression, and just as these cultures have fought hard to resist and adapt to such forces, it is possible to see how many other-than-human Australians and Americans have also fought to maintain their creative traditions.

As arguments for recognition of the constitutional status of non-human flora and fauna develop, and are formalised in nations like Bolivia and Ecuador,[liii] and as our exploding population brings us into ever-closer proximity with populations of other species, the question of where studies in the Humanities are to begin and end is becoming increasingly pressing. Indeed, much animal studies scholarship of recent years has attended to the “new animal geography”, which takes into account, firstly, the agencies of animals themselves, along with the ways such animals transgress anthropocentric orders and, finally, the ways that animals resist such orders.[liv] With the line between human and non-human cultures now blurred, it is imperative that cultural critics and scholars take seriously non-humanistic creativity. Human members of colonised territories have used poetry, song and narrative to such powerful, anti-colonial effect. In turn, I propose here that the same space left for reply in a poem like Wright’s “Bora Ring” (which we might follow with Oodgeroo’s Noonuccal’s “We Are Going”), might also be located in “Ya no cantas, chingolo”. One way to look for this reply is to search the ethological record for the chingolo’s song.

A chingolo song lasts one to two seconds, with frequencies between 2 and 7 kHz/sec. The song’s structure consists of two primary parts. The first part consists of one to four notes, while the second, also known as a “trailing part”, is composed of a series of more similar notes. This second part is crucial because, depending on the length of the note and the separation between each in the series, it could sound like a trill, or like a series of emphatic, distinct whistles. Indeed, without a clearly discernible trill it can seem like the song is only composed of one part.[lv] Of particular relevance to this discussion, however, is how the song of the chingolo varies considerably across the different bioregions of Argentina. Chingolos from different regions exhibit extremely different note- and trill-types, tempos and melodic contours. Within an ecologically homogeneous area, however, these characteristics tend to remain very stable, and this has resulted in a variety of Chingolo dialects. For example, it has been observed that songs from both higher altitudes and from “open”, natural vegetation areas (eg. grasslands and deserts) tend to be lower in frequency, and the trills shorter, than songs from lower altitudes and “closed” vegetation areas (eg. forest and woodland).[lvi] Paul Handford also suggests that the birds’ trills might be influenced by other avian locals, pointing towards a localised, cross-cultural exchange between bird species.[lvii]

Fundamentally, however, research suggests that these variations are much more closely related to the chingolo’s original vegetation than to their contemporary habitats (which might be a mixture or native and imported flora, or composed of very little flora at all).[lviii] In other words, the profound impacts of European colonisation and industrialisation on chingolo song culture have been long-lasting and very hard to adjust to. On the basis of more recent research, it appears to be the case that a number of chingolo song styles have changed in response to dramatic conversions of particular habitats. The “acoustic pressures” that emerge in a habitat that was once “closed” but, in the space of a few years, has been “opened” by deforestation, or a once-“open” habitat that is “closed” by human development, are tremendous. As a result, the song styles of those birds in the most severely-modified habitats appear to have significantly lower frequencies and narrower bandwidths than anywhere else,[lix] as if the birds of those cultures most traumatised are searching for radically alternative forms of expression. What took place in “Ya no cantas”, that attempt to strengthen national Argentinian culture by sourcing a tango song in the chingolo’s, is here drastically complicated, therefore: while the lyric sends the bird prematurely to a silent void, the ethological records tells a different story. Colonisation and industrial development have had profound impacts upon chingolos and their poetics, but the continued evolution of their music suggests very strongly that they are struggling to adapt to these changing conditions, and to find new forms of expression within them.

“Much like other cultures that have refused to be absorbed by colonialism”, writes G. A. Bradshaw, “elephants are struggling to survive as an intact society, to retain their elephant-ness, and to resist what modern humanity has tried to make them—passive objects in zoos [and poems] … .”[lx] In turn, we might say of the chingolo that it too, despite the ongoing onslaught of invasion and colonisation, is doing its best to preserve its chingolo-ness, and to resist representations in which it has vanished, and taken with it all further possibility for song. No doubt Bianchi’s motivations as a lyricist were in some sense “honourable”, but imaginations of absence like these can nevertheless serve to conclude the project of colonisation in much the same way as a poem like “Bora Ring”, however unwittingly. The chingolos survive, and keep singing, and it is our ethical responsibility as poets and scholars to listen to them. The irreducible value of work like “Ya no cantas, chingolo” is therefore in its ability to suggest entry into these more-than-human fields; while the poems themselves might stay clear of them, their language nevertheless rests upon them, is made possible by them. It is not as if the essence of the chingolo or the lyrebird “lives on” in the poems – it would be absurd to suggest or hope that a poem might translate the complexity of an entire species – but that the poem cannot exist, its language cannot function, if its referents are not at least traceable. By following those traces, we enter other worlds.

Appendix A: “Ya no cantas, chingolo” (Chingolito)



Lyrics: Edmundo Bianchi; Music: Antonio Scatasso

Hubo en la pampa una vez

un pajarito cantor

que sobre un yuyo paráu

entonaba una canción

tan triste, que parecía

el llorar de un corazón.

A ese pájaro bagual

lo espantó el ferrocarril

y su canción sin igual

no se podrá más oír…

¡Pobre pajarito gaucho!

¡Dónde habrá ido a morir!

¡Ya no cantas chingolo!…

¿Dónde fuiste a parar?

En algún lado, muy solo,

tu canción llorarás.

Guitarrita del campo,

pájaro payador,

te llevaste contigo

toda la tradición.

Como el ave, el payador,

sentado junto al ombú,

también antes, su canción

elevaba hacia el azul,

donde brillaba, de noche

la divina Cruz del Sur.

Ahora se calló el cantar

y el ave y el payador

fueron lejos a ocultar

su voz llena de emoción,

pues ya invadieron la pampa

¡el jazz, el gringo y el Ford!

¡Ya no cantas chingolo!…

¿Dónde fuiste a parar?

¿En algún lao, muy solo,

despacito llorás?…

Guitarra del campo,

voz de la soledad,

desde que tú te fuiste

no sabemos cantar.


[i] Kate Rigby, “Animal Calls”, in Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, ed. Stephen D. Moore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 117

[ii] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 99

[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 109

[iv] Vicky Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 15

[v] Timothy Morton, “Ecology as Text, Text as Ecology”, The Oxford Literary Review 32.1 (2010), p. 1

[vi] Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, p. 48

[vii] Ibid., p. 41

[viii] Morton, “Ecology as Text, Text as Ecology”, p. 2

[ix] Ibid., p. 4

[x] Angela Hume, “Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly, and Jonathan Skinner,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.4 (2012), p. 754

[xi] “Elegy”, in Tomas Tranströmer, Selected Poems: 1954-1986 (Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1987), pp. 16-19

[xii] “A Few Minutes”, in ibid., p. 94

[xiii] Eugenio Montejo, The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004, trans. Peter Boyle (Applecross: Salt, 2004), pp. 3

[xiv] Ibid., p. 11

[xv] Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, p. 47

[xvi] From “The Earthdom of a Bird”, in Montejo, The Trees, p. 19

[xvii] Miguel Gomes, “Eugenio Montejo’s Earthdom”, trans. Peter Boyle, in Montejo, The Trees, p. xix

[xviii] Montejo, The Trees, p. 19

[xix] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 51

[xx] Stephen Philip Pain, “Inner Representations and Signs in Animals”, Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis, ed. Marcello Barbieri (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008), p. 448

[xxi] Snyder discusses how his “moral compass” expanded to include more-than-human creatures in an interview with Lew Sitzer here:

[xxii] “From March ’79”, in Tranströmer, Selected Poems, p. 159

[xxiii] Montejo, The Trees., p. 119

[xxiv] Gomes, “Eugenio Montejo’s Earthdom”, pp. xxi-xxii

[xxv] Ibid., pp. xxii

[xxvi] Ibid., p. xxii. A common feature of Latin American politics, “neocaudillismo” refers to the adoration of strong, charismatic leaders, who often assume dictatorial proportions.

[xxvii] “Dios se desnuda en la lluvia”, in Horacio Armani, ed., Antología Esencial De Poesía Argentina (Buenos Aires: Aguilar, 1981), p. 111 (my translation)

[xxviii] “No era necesario”, in ibid., p. 112 (my translation)

[xxix] Norma Pérez Martín, “El Espacio En La Obra Poética De Juan L. Ortiz”, Los Espacios De La Literatura, ed. Nélida Salvador and Elisa Rey (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Academia del Sur, 2001), p. 109

[xxx] Gomes, “Eugenio Montejo’s Earthdom”, p. xix

[xxxi] See Martín, “El Espacio En La Obra Poética De Juan L. Ortiz”, pp. 106, 108-9

[xxxii] From “Parrotfish”, in Jeffrey Yang, An Aquarium (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2008), p. 34

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 63

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 65

[xxxv] Analisa DeGrave, “Ecoliterature and Dystopia: Gardens and Topos in Modern Latin American Poetry”, Confluencia 22.2 (2007), p. 96

[xxxvi] From “Baboon Babble [Monólogo del mono]”, in José Emilio Pacheco, An Ark for the Next Millennium [“Álbum de zoología”], trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (Austin: University of Texas Press 1993), pp. 68-9

[xxxvii] Ibid., 95

[xxxviii] Quoted in Aaron M. Moe, Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (Plymouth: Lexington 2014), pp. 109-10

[xxxix] Ibid., p. 110

[xl] “The Anxiety of Clearings”, in John Wolseley, Patagonia to Tasmania: Origin, Movement, Species; Tracing the Southern Continents (Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 1996), p. 7

[xli] See Moe, Zoopoetics, ch. 2.

[xlii] For further discussion about An Imaginary Life, see Hasti Abbasi, “The Ideology of Exile in An Imaginary Life”, Antipodes: a global journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature (in press).

[xliii] See Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2013), ch. 2.

[xliv] See Les Murray and Judith Wright, “Correspondence”, Southerly 63.1 (2003).

[xlv] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p. 43-4

[xlvi] For a more detailed discussion, see Stuart Cooke, “Unsettling Sight: Judith Wright’s Journey into History and Ecology on Mt. Tamborine,” Queensland Review  (in press).

[xlvii] For further discussion of Canto general, including a comparison to Wright’s work, see Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, ch 3.

[xlviii] DeGrave, “Ecoliterature and Dystopia”, p. 94

[xlix] Edmundo Bianchi, “Ya No Cantas, Chingolo”, Letras De Tango: Selección (1897-1981), ed. José Gobello (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Centro Editor S.A., 1997). The full song-text is provided in Appendix A. All translations are mine.

[l] Ibid. (Editor’s notes)

[li] Ibid.

[lii] See Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages.

[liii] See, for example, Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni, La Pachamama Y El Humano (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Madres de Plaza de Mayo, 2013).

[liv] Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert, “Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: An Introduction”, in Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations, ed. Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 5-15

[lv] Fernando Nottebohm, “The Song of the Chingolo, Zonotrichia Capensis, in Argentina: Description and Evaluation of a System of Dialects”, The Condor 71.3 (1969), pp. 301-2

[lvi] Paul Handford and Stephen C. Lougheed, “Variation in Duration and Frequency Characters in the Song of the Rufous-Collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia Capensis, with Respect to Habitat, Trill Dialects and Body Size”, The Condor 93.3 (1991), p. 652

[lvii] Paul Handford, “Vegetational Correlates of Variation in the Song of Zonotrichia Capensis”, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 8.3 (1981), p. 206

[lviii] Handford and Lougheed, “Variation in Duration and Frequency “, p. 652; see also Darío A. Lijtmaer and Pablo L. Tubaro, “A Reversed Pattern of Association between Song Dialects and Habitat in the Rufous-Collared Sparrow”,The Condor 109.3 (2007).

[lix] Lijtmaer and Tubaro, “A Reversed Pattern of Association “, p. 664

[lx] Quoted in Moe, Zoopoetics, p. 117


Abbasi, Hasti, ‘The Ideology of Exile in An Imaginary Life‘, Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature, in press. Print.

Armani, Horacio, ed. Antología Esencial De Poesía Argentina. Buenos Aires: Aguilar, 1981. Print.

Bianchi, Edmundo. “Ya No Cantas, Chingolo”. In Letras De Tango: Selección (1897-1981), ed.  José Gobello, 744. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Centro Editor S.A., 1997. Print.

Cooke, Stuart. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013. Print.

—. “Unsettling Sight: Judith Wright’s Journey into History and Ecology on Mt. Tamborine”. Queensland Review  (in press). Print.

DeGrave, Analisa. “Ecoliterature and Dystopia: Gardens and Topos in Modern Latin American Poetry”. Confluencia 22.2 (2007): 89-104. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.

Gomes, Miguel. “Eugenio Montejo’s Earthdom”. Trans. Peter Boyle. In Monejo, The Trees. Print.

Handford, Paul. “Vegetational Correlates of Variation in the Song of Zonotrichia Capensis”. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 8.3 (1981): 203-6. Print.

Handford, Paul, and Stephen C. Lougheed. “Variation in Duration and Frequency Characters in the Song of the Rufous-Collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia Capensis, with Respect to Habitat, Trill Dialects and Body Size”. The Condor 93.3 (1991): 644-58. Print.

Hume, Angela. “Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly, and Jonathan Skinner”. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.4 (2012): 751-66. Print.

Kirby, Vicky. Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Lijtmaer, Darío A., and Pablo L. Tubaro. “A Reversed Pattern of Association between Song Dialects and Habitat in the Rufous-Collared Sparrow”. The Condor 109.3 (2007): 658-67. Print.

Martín, Norma Pérez. “El Espacio En La Obra Poética De Juan L. Ortiz”. In Los Espacios De La Literatura, ed. Nélida Salvador and Elisa Rey, 103-14. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Academia del Sur, 2001. Print.

Moe, Aaron M. Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Plymouth: Lexington 2014. Print.

Montejo, Eugenio. The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004. Trans. Peter Boyle. Applecross: Salt, 2004. Print.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

—. “Ecology as Text, Text as Ecology”. The Oxford Literary Review 32.1 (2010): 1-17. Print.

—. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Murray, Les, and Judith Wright. “Correspondence”. Southerly 63.1 (2003): 162-80. Print.

Nottebohm, Fernando. “The Song of the Chingolo, Zonotrichia Capensis, in Argentina: Description and Evaluation of a System of Dialects”. The Condor 71.3 (1969): 299-315. Print.

Pacheco, José Emilio. An Ark for the Next Millennium [‘Álbum de zoología’]. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. Print.

Pain, Stephen Philip. “Inner Representations and Signs in Animals”. In Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis, ed. Marcello Barbieri, 409-55. Dordrecht: Springer, 2008. Print.

Philo, Chris, and Chris Wilbert. “Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: An Introduction”. In Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations, ed. Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert, 1-34. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Rigby, Kate. “Animal Calls”. In Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, ed. Stephen D.Moore, 116-33. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.  Print.

Tranströmer, Tomas. Selected Poems: 1954-1986. Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1987. Print.

Wolseley, John. Patagonia to Tasmania: Origin, Movement, Species; Tracing the Southern Continents. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 1996. Print.

Yang, Jeffrey. An Aquarium. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2008. Print.

Zaffaroni, Eugenio Raúl. La Pachamama Y El Humano. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Madres de Plaza de Mayo, 2013. Print.

Published: January 2017
Stuart Cooke

Stuart Cooke’s latest collection is Opera (Five Islands Press, 2016). He is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Prize and the 2016 New Shoots Prize. He lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures at Griffith University.


Lionel Fogarty’s Literary Criticism after the Postcolony

by Corey Wakeling

What kind of literary criticism will there be after the postcolony? What relations would thrive in a decolonised space? In such a space, what would the concept of Australian literature be? How would its topoi and characteristics, agents and environments, circulate? When we envision a new relation to this cultural inheritance, to what extent are we speaking to, or after, the former colony called Australia? Lionel Fogarty has been articulated as many types of poet in relation to colonial history: as one whose relation to language suffered the policies of the late colonial regime of the 1950s (Mead 2008; Mudrooroo 1995), as a major agent of the postcolonial rethinking of Aboriginality and Indigenous poetics in their relation to modernity (Ashcroft 2014; McCredden 2009; Mead 2008), or as an anti-colonial radical (Alizadeh 2013; Hopfer 2002; Mead 2008; Minter 2013). These differences speak also of the diversity of approaches available to those who invoke the idea of colony in their theorisations. Moreover, these differences reveal the multiplicity of orientations the appellation “decolonisation” implies. For different critics and theorists, postcolonialism was meant as a tool of decolonisation (Chakrabarty, Spivak). But, to the extent that postcolonialism has prioritised an engagement with the semiotics of politics and cultural memory over a more immediate engagement with political subjectivities and praxes, “postcolonialism” has for some come to connote the face of neoliberal neo-colonialism and its sleight-of-hand diplomacy between world actors.

I don’t see the resolution of these lexical and conceptual divides as necessarily relevant to a revivification of the discourse of decolonisation. But, I present this lexical and conceptual problem before commencing my own exposition of Lionel Fogarty’s after-postcolonial imagination. Basically, the problematics of the postcolony are different from the colony’s, even when postcolonialism stands to represent contemporary regurgitations of colonial ideologies. Moreover, the colonial past and its persistence in the contemporary State in neo- and post- forms is unquestionable. But, which present-day injustices and prejudices are recitations in postcolonialism, which are new campaigns, and which are effectively decolonised but archived? The subject of this essay is a point of engagement that is verifiable. Subject to the criticism of Fogarty’s aesthetic politics, there is one subcolony of the Australian postcolony that I can locate with confidence using the rubric of decolonisation: “Australian literature”.

The possibilities of an Australian literature after the postcolony is the subject of Lionel Fogarty’s more recent work, Mogwie-Idan (2012), and Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future) (2014). Fogarty the decolonising literary critic is a neglected subject for discussion which I hope to illuminate. Yet, such a discussion seems obvious given poems such as “Anthology Our International” (2014, 118) and “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets” (2014, 70–74), which explicitly flout literary and national borders in imagining new social and political relations through writing. Fogarty is one of a few writing in a tense explicitly after the postcolony. This essay tries to piece together what appears to be a complex dream of a particular kind of literature postnation, after the colony.

The first half of Fogarty’s oeuvre[1] closely recites his activist demands for a revolution to oppose the unjust Australian State imaginary as it colonises the fate of many Aboriginal people; the central event of injustice for this oeuvre during this time was the death in police custody of his brother, Daniel Yock. The second half of his oeuvre, including his most recent work, has redoubled the significance of this decolonial activism as the foundation for future thought predicated on Aboriginal history, but also the imagination of a literary solidarity. Consciousness that this work has constituted a body of knowledge and an intellectual and poetic tradition, if you like, as well as an anti-colonial praxis, has become an overt concern of the poet by the time of more recent work. Dreams for the fate of writers in particular, articulated specifically in terms of Asia-Pacific relations, encourage a renovated view of the literary. Specifically, Fogarty appears to endorse an imaginary taking place after the tensions of the postcolony.

I want to suggest that the contemporary Fogarty is concerned about the fate of literature in parallel to political enthusiasms for Indigenous futures. I want to look closely at the lexical and spatiotemporal manoeuvres Fogarty embedded in this book, to shift towards an understanding of the space after the postcolony he imagines, a speculation towards what I think is an internationalism of Australian and non-Australian relations written in “lingo”, with Aboriginal literature in international literary friendship across ocean floors (Fogarty 1997, n. pg.).

The question of literary criticism in Lionel Fogarty’s work

For a number of reasons, it is not conventional nor pertinent to study Fogarty’s poetry as works of literary criticism, nor as poetry containing it. Fogarty being a model of devotion to a revolutionary activist poetics rooted in practice, it may seem beside the point to propose to read such work for the sake of a literary criticism to come, of all things. Who cares about literary criticism! Surely such a revolutionary poetic metier seeks instead to agitate and depose any coercions of how to read Fogarty’s radical poetic voice. Moreover, hasn’t Fogarty long pushed readers to encounter his work more immediately through the lens of Indigenous epistemes, anti-colonial political rhetoric, and the immediacy of the poet’s voice itself? In 1980, when Fogarty was in his early twenties, he writes, “Mr Professor”: “Thanks, Mr Professor / for those kind gestures / but I’m doing my thing”, concluding, “your intellectual / and academic criticisms / have been your industry, / out of our oppression” (Fogarty 1995, 13). The anti-institutional bearing of the work is undeniable. But, it would be wrong for us to conflate the early Fogarty with the present. In more recent work, we see the subject of the writer, the teacher, the collective, and the anthology raised in a different light. Oppositions between physical action and poetic or intellectual activism are in fact unsustainable in application to Fogarty’s oeuvre by the time of Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future). What has become of this work is no less exciting. Fogarty’s activist poetics have developed to contribute to, rather than disavow, discourses of literary relations and subjectivities.

Fogarty’s work shows us a better way to do literary criticism. He shows us how to share poetic acts with archival, theoretical, poetic, and environmental discourses, discourses which constitute a hallucinatory and politically radical envisioning of riots side-by-side with international literary solidarities and imaginative ecological encounters. Consider that as early as 1982, Fogarty writes a poem called “Ecology”, situating an index of animal spirits under the heading of an episteme, its milieu an “eco-system” (Fogarty 1982, n. pg.). Moreover, in an annual lecture series conducted at the University of Melbourne in the Australian Indigenous Studies programme, Fogarty speaks explicitly about poetics and the mobility of the international travelling artist/teacher as agent of paradigmatic change. So, if critics have an anxiety about making institutional matter like literary criticism of the decolonial project, then, such anxieties foreclose the kinds of engagement that Fogarty himself seeks out as a teacher and as a model. Moreover, recycling the notional circulation of critical writing as apolitical is to clash with Fogarty’s radicalism, his capacity to transmit decolonial ideas in institutional and non-institutional, cultural and subcultural spaces. Disavowing the academy is today’s cliché in times of ambiguous legitimacy. Fogarty’s role as a teacher and the particular literary statements of his 2014 book suggest that decolonisation of literary criticism can mean the revivification of critical writing, theory, and poetics as political acts, giving space to those like himself who have revolutionary notions of what Australian literature might be. In this sense, Fogarty is consonant with Peter Minter’s call for “a renewed ethical and aesthetic architecture” (Minter 2013, 157). The kinds of architectures Fogarty imagines for the Australian literary landscape have hardly been seen before.

The specifically literary critical engagement with Fogarty’s oeuvre so far has been to view his work as broadcasting Aboriginal politics to canon and other conservative cultural institutions. Lyn McCredden has viewed Fogarty as contributing a “locatedness” and “located remembering” (McCredden 2009, 10) to literature amid the uncertain implications of the 2008 Australian Federal Government’s Apology to the Stolen Generation; Peter Minter has integrated an early critique of the literary canon in “My Cry is Lost in a Name” from Kargun (1980) as a decolonial gesture (Minter 2013, 158), part of a broader critical enterprise of conceptualising decolonisation; Ali Alizadeh has observed how Fogarty “challenges and reinvents identitarian assumptions apropos of Aboriginality in contemporary, multicultural Australia” (Alizadeh 2013, 129) by “naming its voids” (130), mobilising a “politicized spirituality” (132, italics original); Claire Nashar has suggested that section of Mogwie-Idan CONNECTION REQUITAL”, invests in “intergenerational transmissions of culture”, Nashar’s proposal corroborating Fogarty’s own remark about inspiring youth: “Oodgeroo told me all you have to do is catch all the young people” (Fogarty 1997, n. pg.); Sabina Hopfer has brought explicitly biographical details which feature in Fogarty’s work to bear upon the broader question of delay in justice in the postcolony, part of a broader, explicit anti-colonial politics: “Fogarty is well aware that the theme of death in custody is a sub-theme of a much larger one, namely that of having been in the custody of a colonial society for more than 200 years” (Hopfer 2002, 50). These are just an obvious few.

For the methodology of decolonisation itself, what indeed are the new horizons of literary critical practice after the postcolonial predicament, after the renovation of institutions, governance, and particular discourses? Some new horizons have developed to conceive of relations outside of crisis and representation, in terms based upon notions of a beneficiary space of decolonisation. These horizons have been articulated, for example, in terms of ethnographic fieldwork in collaboration with literary criticism (see Martin, Mead and Trigger 2014), bilingual archiving and translation (see Cooke 2014), literary theory based on transnational relations between First Nations poetics (see Cooke 2013), and literature in the context of transmedial experiment (see Harkin 2014). The recovery of a poetics of unsettlement from within the colonial and its spectral and actual post-iterations is the horizon of recent Writing Australian Unsettlement (see Farrell 2015).

What is the status of nation for a decolonial imaginary? Fogarty repeats the term “international” rather than that heavily theorised postcolonial concept, the “cosmopolitan”, for reasons, I suspect, that pertain to the postcolony as an untrustworthy promulgator of cosmopoles, or cosmopolitan centres. For decolonial politics, cosmopolitanism can present policies of friendship that are dishonest, unconsummated, false, or a cover for neo-colonial programmes of control. The international, by contrast, retains the national as a state of politics that Fogarty, even if in agitation, is invested in. Cosmopolitanism is a tricky lexical alternative by contrast with the international when considering how those cosmopoles of the postcolonial twentieth century have upheld in many cases white legacies of governance. This is a phenomenon best theorised by Achille Mbembe as an inevitable condition of the postcolony (2001). Why indeed are the cosmopoles of the postcolony so often grotesque? Regarding the colonial period, Philip Mead in Networked Language (2008) has pointed to Lionel Fogarty’s denunciation of “European colonialist ways of writing, and the disease of stupidity in their language” (Fogarty 1995, ix). Mead maps how grotesquely euphemistic Australian colonial language became as it corroborated and legitimised genocide of Indigenous people and cultures (Mead 2008, 399-433). Mead’s position in the postcolonial frame is ameliorative, centring the polyphonic and heteroglossic poetics of writers whose postcoloniality is explicit. By implication then, to disregard voices which speak out using English marked by the violent and colonised heritage of nation and, like Fogarty, “see words beyond any acceptable meaning”, is to sustain a version of Australian literature with the fantasy of white Australia remaining its central adjudicator.

Fogarty’s persistent use of the trope of the international in recent work is amenable to more radical theories of cosmopolitanism. But, as I will observe, questions remain for Fogarty how possible such future interactions are within national borders when the urge is to defy such borders through writerly solidarity at liminal interzones. Indeed, Fogarty seems to be more concerned with literary geographies which bind nations to each other and constitute “postnational” (Mead 2015, 203) interzones, such as the Pacific Ocean, where Fogarty reckons “if we walk under the seabeds we / sleep together” (Fogarty 2014, 70). Seabeds are the broader but often invisible ecological commons which establish our biological and environmental relations in the first place. This ecological orientation may hint at Fogarty’s reason for preferring the term “international” over the postcolonial false promise of the cosmopole: Fogarty can engage his own experience of international literary solidarity in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, and experiment with it, whereas cosmopolitanisms by contrast seem to sustain violent neo-colonial interventions into geographies, and codify or demand certain kinds of participation and production of subjectivity. Indeed, the multicultural sites of cosmopolitanism like Australia’s urban spaces are the same spaces which either segregate or exclude Aboriginal people altogether, spaces of transnationalism where Indigeneity itself is often a recognisably subaltern element. This type of cosmopolitanism is at odds with the spaces in motion enabled by international interactions and solidarities which poems like “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets” imagine, entailing cosmopolitan agency across international zones.

“Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets”

What is an internationalism activating “postnational” (Mead 2015: 203) encounters? For Fogarty, linguistic experimentation of this trajectory entails a “long ago-looking-future”, the title of Fogarty’s 2014 volume, a way of looking forward which is ancestrally informed, temporally fluid, and porously embedded in deep ecological time. Poem “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets” (2014, 70–74), first published in Mascara Literary Review in 2013, articulates transnational flows and counter-nationalist operations which happen to sustain local and regional difference in the process of dissemination. It extends the ecological rethinking of subject and place familiar to readers of Fogarty as a series of flows which distribute and reconsolidate subjective-spiritual engagement with land, but also oceanic and subterranean ecologies. Moreover, these flows threaten the consistency of one apparently unified Australian subject to be verified by a national Australian milieu. “Advance” also speaks directly of the terms of readership and literary political solidarity that the poem proposes to occupy in future tense, a kind of recursive gesture of self-situation in an imagined archive. The setting is of an Australia in Asia:

Asian unity we need is most important

They are the beings on top of us an on the side of us.

At our arms is the Pacific of knowing

We need to unite for rights in all writing powers.

Our Asians are on our earth if we walk under the seabeds we

sleep together

Think where there’s no sea the waves of our humanity is the same.

(2014, 70)

And at the conclusion of this minor epic, the poem proclaims:

Let the Asian Pacific warriors live message UN broken.

Let the Asian Pacific warrior’s faith the barely crawled belly of


Come Brothers of the Asian Pacific writers pleasant our pride

for a truce in a thousand devour years, no colony can con.


Speaking about Fogarty as a singular visionary unduly collapses what is evidently a pluralistic approach to form. Moreover, a poem of this length is uncustomary in the Fogarty oeuvre. His ability to move between seriousness, unseriousness, levity, anthem, criticism, exposition, rhythmic versifying, arrhythmic visceral wordplay, epic narrative (“warriors”), and media ecology, effects a kind of linguistic commons of interrelation that makes the impossible possible – of postnational Indigenous and Asian writers in intimate contact under the seafloor.

The imaginary conditions of this exchange point to a materialist objective referred to earlier in the poem: “Our skies in outback here beds and houses their skies” (71), skies, Fogarty concludes, “no colony can con”. “[N]o colony can con” – a great slogan of decolonisation in lingo. The construction of these relations – indigenous Australia and the Asia-Pacific linked at once by a broken UN and an ocean floor – are not distant when articulated ecologically and politically. The solidarity born atop the failures of the UN and the ecological bulwarks of international difference is positioned as literary in future tense, as an advance of “Asian and Pacific Writers”. Postcolonialism’s politics of control are seen to collude with the concept of “the humanitarian”, invoked by this reference to a “broken UN”. “[T]he humanitarian”, as Jacques Derrida has deconstructed, is the subject with “a right to interfere, to invent” (Derrida 2005, 273). The familiar Fogarty politics turns to the sphere of international literary politics to stage the conjunction of the failure of the postcolonial humanitarian with “rights in all writing powers”, with an ecological, but literary, postnational sensibility emerged after the fact.

Literary criticism takes place immanent to reception, readership, utterance and inscription. Criticism is discursively placed and contextualised. Fogarty’s literary critical context is, importantly, symbolic. Asian-Pacific writers meet on the ocean floor, flouting not only national borders but also the biospherical limits of what is seen to be possible for the human. This posthuman meeting place is ecological (we will need gills, and then claws), and rooted in geological time (of the pulsating durations of natural gas, of magma?). When embodied imaginatively, nation as we know it is unsustainable, its literary limits based on unimaginatively received ancestry and an assimilatory advance. Fogarty’s work may not convey care for the literary critic as such, but it does apparently care deeply about the context of its being read and shared, and how this sharing and reading constitutes a politics. This, I think, is a kind of decolonised literary criticism.

To the extent that communal relations within certain fields, like literature, graph future relations, a concomitant move to embody and activate the ways of living they suggest or themselves facilitate is an act of literary criticism Fogarty appears to endorse. In an interview with Philip Mead in 1997, Fogarty called this kind of embodiment “an energy, good energy” (Fogarty 1997, n. pg.). Another Indigenous experimental poet, Natalie Harkin, has called this method of embodiment an “archive / fever / paradox // my blood it pumps // where hearts / have / stopped” (subtitle to her installation Archive Fever Paradox, 2013). Framed in the context of Fogarty’s poem, such an injunction is a gesture contextualising an oceanic and First Nations-initiated literary exchange in embodied, heart-like pulsation and transfusion into spaces “where hearts have stopped”. Harkin reframes the same idea regarding nation and history in the preface to her book Dirty Words (2015), writing that “[t]his small contemplation on nation and history is informed by blood-memory” (Harkin 2015, ix). Harkin in particular is concerned with sanguinating the lifeless bureaucratic archive of colonial surveillance of Aboriginal people as part of policies now known to be of the State apparatus responsible for the Stolen Generation. Theorisation of this process also appears in an article on a poetics of the archive from 2014 (Harkin 2014). But Harkin and Fogarty share a project of finding continuities between ancestral lines and the trajectories of Indigenous futures, with ecological and corporeal politics of re-enactment and engagement being ideational archives. Like Harkin, Fogarty is especially concerned with fields of relation once precluded from Aboriginal embodiment as arbitrators or as critics, like the sphere of transnational literature. This process continues to unfold. But, here, we see how poets themselves are developing some of the most imaginative ideas about decolonised literary criticism and literary context, finding new continuities with literary and cultural ancestors commensurate with decolonised futures. In concert, then, we can see these two very different poets both refashion the meaning of literary knowledge and the questions of its personal and political embodiments.

The international

In three other poems from the collection – “Amplifier Aims of Circle” (Fogarty 2014, 30), “Immemorial Conservative” (31), and “Anthology Our International” (118) – a theory of international friendship (and its problematics) develops into questions of literary solidarity across national borders and in liminal interzones. These poems endorse the concept of “anthology” as an archive of Indigenous knowledge and as a vector for international relations. “Anthology” has a peculiar temporality, but which seems to me to materialise the book’s titular concern, a “long ago looking future”, with a cosmopolitanism congenial to Jacques Derrida’s theorisation in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), as the convergence of “[e]xperience and experimentation” (Derrida 2001, 23, italics original). Such “experience and experimentation” puts democracy to the test, a position deeply suspicious of the cosmopolitanisms of State and of law so far in late capitalist democracies. But, this commonality is the limit of the “Anthology”’s agreements with such a cosmopolitanism, and part of my strategy in making such a connection. Namely, the unsatisfactory transcendentalism of time implicit in Derrida’s “democracy to come” is overturned by Fogarty’s “enticing times” (30), which “risk the riots tonight”. Interestingly, tonight’s riots are expressed as commensurate with a “reclin[ing] . . . firm folk black lore” (31). States of action and states of rest are not presented as being in opposition. Significantly, Fogarty puts democracy’s future tense at “tonight”. The poem imagines an immanence of action in collaboration with anthological and archival speculations where states of action and rest share space so long as they “risk the riots”. Such an anthological and archival imaginary defies the delays of the postcolony written into Derrida’s imperfect theory of the cosmopolitan, but retains its celebration of “experience and experimentation” as a test of democracy. In a radical temporal move,”Anthology our International” imagines a riotous literary solidarity for “tonight”.

Besides the enormity of those conjunctions of radical politics with literary and ecological experiment, in the interview with Philip Mead from 1997, Fogarty shows a modestly heuristic role for the career of the poet as the poet navigates this international literary sphere:

I’d really like to get all my poetry overseas and I’d like to get it to places in Europe, in Asia, in America, and the Pacific. I mean I’d like to get it to communities of indigenous people as well as into bourgeois society, into communities where they can understand the great intelligence of Aboriginal writers in this country. I’d like to see that my writing creates something that is tangible and recognisable, with great meaning in it, but with small meaning in it, where it helps people at the same time that are helped by themselves, that it furthers their educational standard, and helps them spiritually to a sense of the present-day reality of our people. The way I see my books going, or this next book, is creating a collective thought within people so that they can go back and read other Aboriginal literature or whiteman’s literature, either historical or present-day, or when they read things like deaths in custody, this will help them to meditate, so that they can create an energy, good energy.

(Fogarty 1997, n. pg.)

This is Fogarty pre-2000 whose poems did not reflect as explicitly on questions of anthology, literary criticism, and theories of Indigenous writing. Yet, the concern for the heuristics of literature are clear. Moreover, the audiences proposed are wide. The non-negotiable political tactics of some are not the strategies of Fogarty: he avows an interest in “collecting thought” in such a way as to draw readers toward “other Aboriginal literature”. Crucially, however, such work is not seen to be at odds with consciousness of “things like deaths in custody”. The project for Fogarty at the time appears to be to “understand . . . great intelligence”, which at once draws the reader to politics and to literature.

What has changed since this interview is the extent to which the circulation of desires for a transformed and postnational Australian literary context is imagined as a repository of transnational and decolonial futures. “Anthology Our International” typifies this view. In “Anthology”, Fogarty writes: “International causes are same as days ahead. / The night differ yet the bloods feels same as cuts” (118). The temporality represented in the poem is crucially the time of now, but also the recent and the soon; “the days ahead”. This temporal strategy amounts to a view of literary archive as a universal to come which is, however, immanent and material, “causes” to be “taken up”. Confronting the differentiation of time across longitudes, the poem admits that “[t]he night differ”. The plural is neglected perhaps to encourage the universal suggestion at hand, that “bloods feels same as cuts” under one shared night of international time. International time in this conception is felt to be at once true but inapprehensible.

The poem concludes by conflating “those entire anthologies” with “our International’s”. This possessive operation of the international is curious indeed, and shows how Fogarty at once engages with a view of internationalism congenial to Derrida’s view of cosmopolitanism as a space beyond or between nation, but defies Derrida’s unsatisfactorily delayed time. Insofar as the poem archives “firm folk black lore” (31) and allows “lore” to “recline” – amid the riots of poem “Immemorial Conservative”, I hasten to add – the international anthology in “Anthology Our International” is conceived in a possessive – “our” anthology. This sentiment of course is anticipated by the opening line as its flag hangs in space – “The International needs us now Black Red Gold” (118).

What are these riots staged in the highly ambiguous “Immemorial Conservative” and how does this scenario relate to Fogarty’s theory of the international? These riots, arguably the anti-racist, anti-Queensland Government, and black deaths in custody activism Fogarty was central to, are not positioned as the past, with the international anthology as the future. Rather, both political and literary futures are imagined as co-immanent in a “long ago looking future”. Admission of aesthetic politics opens the poem: “Rioted by the rights, Do it blacks insights into compelling / writing a painting” (31). Fogarty is also a painter, and reproductions of paintings of his in the work prior to Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future), Mogwie-Idan, are framed as another kind of archival system, working like chapter headings. “[W]riting a painting” suggests that painting and writing are mutual inscription methods for “insights into compelling”. The gerund, “compelling”, hangs at the end of the line, emphasising writing and painting as acts of compelling, actions tied to riots incited, it appears, by rights.

“Immemorial Conservative” does not address the international directly as other poems have, but like “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets” invests in a flow of intensities which start from a political or ethical edict. Moreover, like “Advance”, the poem maps a psychic-spiritual as well as ideational terrain of obstructions, encounters, and openings leading towards an imagined future. Here, following the trajectory of the furious action of the riots articulated as “oddness in panic”, “created levelled outlined laws”, “Vibration manifests fests by guests. / Prosper corroborative reputable distress”, and “Riot those silent in mercy complaints”, the resolution of the poem arrives to sediment the place of particular discourses in this swirl of future time felt now:

Risk the riots tonight for the real fights.

In remembrance of our crowd flushed

Out of this systems.

Recline the firm folk black lore.


The tone mirrors the poem opposite, “Amplifier Aims of Circle”, its conclusion associating the excitement of time to come with sanctuary and repose: “And let go matter burrowed deep. / Enticing times of aims encircled” (30). These earlier poems in the collection foreshadow the cosmopolitan dreams and temporal patterns of later poems like “Advance”. But, situating more intimately an experience of the political activity of the present with the experiments of the imagination, the poem foregrounds “lore”. This lore sides with subterranean, ecological, and Asia-Pacific epistemes.

In a temporal and discursively complex scene, Fogarty has enshrined an experimental poetics consonant with Philip Mead’s proposal for a post-national poetics by which to intervene in the uninterrogated futures the Australian literary canon inadvertently sustains. Mead implicates unquestioned literary history with unquestioned colonial history more generally, viewing Fogarty’s poetics as “an index of the harm that the double-speak of colonisation continues to inflict, and a gauge of the unsettledness of all concepts of self-formation and national identity” (Mead 2008, 422). Specifically for Mead, Fogarty’s “heteroglossi[a]” (422) is a multilingual, disobedient, and, after Mudrooroo’s account of Fogarty, “guerrilla”, poetics (426) which works through agitations that oppose the grotesquely monolingual and monocultural vernacular of white Australia. Mead’s reading of Fogarty reminds Australians that the notion of one Australian vernacular dressed in green-and-gold anthems as the vernacular is an erasure of an originary plurality. Interestingly, an unquestioned view of vernacular as universal, rural, historical, and so on, sanctions the strict disqualifications of ungrammatical, polylingual language activity at the level of citizenship, employment, and cultural capital that Mead historicises as suffering by the genocidal policies of colonial Australia (399-433). Monocultural Australianness asserts itself when its collusive elite and working class spheres are given as pre-established and prioritised as the logical social order; all other dialects and discourses, precarious social classes and subalternities, clang. When the dialectic of standard versus vernacular speech is not live and experimental but preordained, all else is prohibited, or, “unintelligible”. Fogarty’s future tense literary imagination and literary criticism resituates these nationally unintelligible language practices in a frame which legitimises their temporal perceptiveness to ancestry and long time, their geological and geographical agency, and the compelling propulsion of their advance.

More specifically, the double distortion the postcolony performs on cultural memory from a linguistic point of view appears to be what is shown to be grotesque about the postcolony by contrast with Fogarty’s decolonised literary sphere. Not only was linguistic mobility in Aboriginal languages subject to genocidal campaigns during the colonial era, but the postcolonial State excludes from its lexical and literary imagination the very polylingual and creolised encounters with English it initiated. Seen as the benevolent agents of self-improvement, self-advancement, and cultural mobility, a closed view of linguistic agency is a counterpart to what Achille Mbembe has called the postcolony’s commandement, specifically its commandment of cultural obedience (see Mbembe 2001, 24–65). A. Dirk Moses has shown to what extent Mbembe’s theory of the postcolony is applicable to the Australian context. Moses shows how since the John Howard era the spectre of colonialism as an administrator of cultural obedience continues to govern the cynical uses of injunctions for self-determination and cultural mobility in cases such as the Northern Territory Intervention (see Moses 2010). “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets”, as is obvious, inverts that favourite subject of parody for Indigenous writers, anthem “Advance Australia Fair”. Unlike the assumed listenership of the postcolonial anthem, Fogarty is conscious of the question of who advances, and where, writing: “We need to unite for rights in all writing powers. / [. . .] // Think where there’s no sea the waves of our humanity is the same,” “So black fell writers this sacred future timing is important” (Fogarty 2014, 70). The poem, in short, thinks seriously about actual policies for literary postnational asylum. Again, ancestral past – “black fell writers”, the use of “fell” as if to suggest deaths of past literary figures are historical killings – corroborates solidarity with a future tense of exchange, or “sacred future timing”. This post-anthemic consciousness in view, Fogarty’s “guerrilla poetics” appear less identitarian than an orchestrated decolonial resistance to the postcolonial commandement.


“The International needs us now Black Red Gold” (118). As Mead and Mudrooroo have explicated, as Fogarty has avowed, the state of grotesque hypocrisy of the postcolony might look outwards anew through a decolonial imagination. In particular, the postcolony might be reoriented to look outwards towards transnational political and literary solidarity as a temporal sanctuary, a “long ago looking future” that would conjoin its democratic and international aspirations to its literary imagination. Such sanctuary would be one inclusive of “firm folk black lore” (31), and know that it needs the “Black Red Gold”. If this sounds utopian, we are missing the intimacy survival and visibility have with literary recognitions of language and community. Namely, such literary recognition is necessarily wagered on the speculations of such a space’s terms and forms. Decolonial literary recognition would oppose the mandates of linguistic obedience, and imagine a future for poetics like Fogarty’s which might activate agential aesthetic and political relations in conjunction.

Such terms of a literary field after the postcolonial are dreams of subsistence and learning, rather than grandiose utopianism, in sum. This sanctuary is, rather, ecological; such friendships and such an advance promise only the subsistence of visibility in a national site which has otherwise foreclosed literary recognition from outside the nationally received vernacular-standard English dialectic. No wonder this literary critical field Fogarty imagines is under the ocean floor. A kind of ecological view of posterity, its magnitude and scale exceed the social prejudices which limit literary politics to the meagreness of generations and fragile national traditions built upon negations and erasures.

Fogarty leads Australian literature in envisioning spatiotemporal and linguistic ways in which to engage in international friendships which subvert canonical Australian linguistic adjudication. To use Fogarty’s phraseology, such a linguistic friendship would mean the meeting of “lingo” (Fogarty 1997, n. pg.). It is an exciting project. Fogarty’s lingo has inspired so many in Australian poetics with its celebration of disobedient, geographically and ecologically-singular, but also educative and visionary, linguistic interactions. Fogarty’s is a poetics which flouts national borders, envisioning a space where the “landmass hearts” of trans-Pacific poets constitute a field of “writer’s futures” (30, 104). Fogarty stages these imperatives through new speculative encounters between nations as biospheres and seaborne but geo-bound poet-subjects, a grouping whose archive of reading and “long ago looking future” tense could indeed proceed postnation, after the postcolony.


Alizadeh, Ali. 2013. “Naming the Voids of Multiculturalism in ‘Biral Biral’: A New Reading of the Poetry of Lionel Fogarty”. Antipodes 27. 2 (Dec): 129–33.

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Cooke, Stuart. 2013. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi.

Cooke, Stuart (ed. trans.). 2014. George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle. Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. London and New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins. London and New York: Verso.

Farrell, Michael. 2015. Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fogarty, Lionel. 1982. Yoogum yoogum. Ringwood: Penguin. Reproduced Australian Poetry Library.

Fogarty, Lionel. 1995. New and Selected Poems: Munaldjalli, Mutuerjaraera. South Melbourne: Hyland House.

Fogarty, Lionel. 1997. “Australian poet Lionel Fogarty: in conversation with Philip Mead”. Jacket Magazine 1: n. pg.

Fogarty, Lionel. 2014. Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future). Newtown: Vagabond Press.

Harkin, Natalie.  2014. “The Poetics of (Re)Mapping Archives: Memory in the Blood”. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 14. 3 (2014): 1–14.

Harkin, Natalie. 2015. Dirty Words. Carlton South: Cordite Press.

Martin, Richard J., Philip Mead, and David Trigger. 2014. “The politics of indigeneity, identity and representation in literature from north Australia’s Gulf Country”. Social Identities 20. 4/5 (Jul-Sep): 330–45.

McCredden, Lyn. “The Locatedness of Poetry”. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Special Issue: Australian Literature in a Global World (2009): 1–10.

Mead, Philip. 2008. Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008.

Minter, Peter. 2013. “Archipelagos of Sense: Thinking about a decolonised Australian poetics”. Southerly 73. 1: 155–69.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London: University of California Press.

Moses, A. Dirk. 2010. “Time, indigeneity, and peoplehood: the postcolony in Australia”. Postcolonial Studies 13. 1: 9–32.

Mudrooroo. 1995. “Guerrilla Poetry”. In New and Selected Poems: Munaldjalli, Mutuerjaraera by Lionel Fogarty. South Melbourne: Hyland House: xi-xiii.

Nashar, Claire. 2013. “Review of Mogwie-Idan: Stories of the land by Lionel Fogarty”. Southerly, Long Paddock 73. 2: n. pg.


[1] By first half, I mean work prior to 2000, roughly represented by the New and Selected Poems: Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (1995), which compiles poems from Jagera (1990), Ngutji (1984), Kudjela (1983), Yoogum Yoogum (1982), and Kargun (1980), along with “New Poems” at the time of publication (1995).

Published: July 2016
Corey Wakeling

is Lecturer in Drama at Kobe College, Nishinomiya, Japan. He received a PhD in English and Theatre Studies from the University of Melbourne in 2013. With Jeremy Balius he edited Outcrop: radical Australian poetry of land, Black Rider, 2013.


Cultivating Ecological Perception: Creativity within Undergraduate Explorations of Human Ecology and Ecological Agriculture

by Ben Gleeson


The Human Ecology subject is a third-year unit of the Ecological Agriculture degree at Charles Sturt University (CSU). Unlike typical agricultural science subjects, this unit provides a major assessment task offering students the opportunity to examine their own ecological subjectivity using modes of artistic expression. Here, I reflect upon my experience as a student of Human Ecology. I outline my creative practice, present some of my results and discuss the ecological learning that flowed from this engagement. Following this, I situate these learnings within a broader context of ecological cultivation, and close with a brief assessment of Human Ecology as a component of the Ecological Agriculture degree.

Human Ecology and the art of Ecological Perception

The Human Ecology subject at CSU requires agriculture students to design and enact a program of artistic practice using one or more modes of creative expression. This practice may occur within, or with reference to, a specific environmental context or organism (e.g. tree, sprouted seed or animal). Students submit a folio of expressive work along with a written report that describes their practice and resultant learnings. Subject materials provide weekly readings associated with ecological science and philosophy, but the theme of the major assessment task is an engagement with five tenets of “Ecological Perception” as described by Laura Sewall (1995) in her essay, The Skill of Ecological Perception. These tenets are: “learning to attend”, “perceiving the relations”, “perceptual flexibility”, “reperceiving depth”, and “the imaginal self” (Sewall, 1995).

This present article contains examples of poems, photographs and ink paintings, along with text-based descriptions and reflections submitted in my final report for Human Ecology. After describing my chosen place and practice, I address each of Sewall’s tenets individually and discuss how my engagement related to them. I also discuss how insights derived from this experience might relate to human cultivation and land management in the Anthropocene with reference to ideas around “auto-rewilders” (Tsing, 2015) and “ecosynthesis” (Holmgren, 2002; Tane, 1993). I conclude with a brief assessment of the efficacy of the Human Ecology unit as a stimulus toward enhanced ecological perception among tertiary-level agricultural science graduates.

Place and practice

Flood Creek is an incised flow line beside the town of Braidwood, New South Wales. It forms part of the catchment of Gillamatong Creek which joins the Shoalhaven River, eventually flowing to the sea near Nowra. Braidwood has a population of 1100 people. It was officially gazetted in 1822. The pre-European vegetation of this area has been extensively cleared, so much so that only one percent of the original native cover now remains on the Devonian granite basin surrounding the town (Appleby, Knowles and Cole, undated). Whilst most of its catchment consists of open paddocks, the peri-urban section of Flood Creek is heavily vegetated. This vegetation is primarily non-native species, but several macrophytes, including: Typha, Phragmites, Eleocharis and Carex, provide native exceptions. The current overstorey consists of crack willows, eastern cottonwoods, Dutch elms, and box elders. Understorey plants include small-leafed privet, broad-leafed privet, and hawthorn. There are various non-native vines and ground covers, especially common ivy, honeysuckle and periwinkle, among others.

Ben Gleeson photo 1

Digital photograph: Pool with exotic forest at Flood Creek

I attended to my practice at Flood Creek twice a week over an eight week period during April, May and June of 2011. I would ride my bicycle to Flood Creek with an ink-wash brush, a jar of black ink, an A5 book of textured paper, and a digital camera. I explored new parts of the area at each visit and selected a location based on random aesthetic allure. I would sit amongst whatever groundcover was present (usually ivy or buttercups), unpack my paper, brush, and ink and arrange myself comfortably. I would then gaze about and consider various aspects of my surroundings until the beginning of either a painted image or poem emerged for me to work with. These were initially sketched using the brush and ink on textured paper and the majority were re-worked to completion upon returning home. Having captured at least one satisfactory poem and one painting, I would take up my camera and wander in whichever direction captured my attention, looking for subjects or perspectives of interest.

Ben Gleeson photo 2

Digital photograph: Winter willow reflected at sunrise

Sewall’s Tenet 1: ‘Learning to attend’

The initial residential school for Human Ecology, included a group-lesson in life drawing. This was intended to provide a first step on our learning journey into artistic expression. The sketches shown below indicate some personal progress during this initial lesson. “Pear 1” is my first attempt at sketching a handy pear. “Pear 2” is my next effort after feedback and advice from our tutor, Helen Cochrane. The results of this exercise provide a simple demonstration of how the ability to perceive and record ordinary details of reality can be improved through conscious effort and practice in creative modes of attendance.

Ben Gleeson photo 2b

Pencil sketch: first and second attempts at representing a handy pear

Despite this enlightening introduction, my initial ink paintings at Flood Creek were less than satisfactory. I now feel this was due to my elevated anxiety that the practice might not produce tangible results suitable for assessment. I recall I felt a pressure to “hurry-up and do something creative!” My paintings seemed uninspired and forced, and it was only after a moment of deliberate relaxation that my first poem,1 “Sit to paint”, unintentionally came to mind.

Sit to paint

I sit down to paint,

… too fast!


to see,

to hear,

to smell,

to feel,

to taste,

to let,

to learn,

to paint.

Until that point, I hadn’t intended to include poetry within my practice, but I wrote this poem with my paintbrush and ink and continued to utilise poetic expression from that point on. After this, my confidence in the practice grew. I could recognise the receptive state of attendance that I was aiming for and no-longer had to “try” to create. My initial plan to paint realistic pictures gave way to playful doodling. I eventually found myself satisfied with small representational images that encapsulated the “feeling” of certain aspects of my surrounds.

Ben Gleeson photo 3

Ink painting: A rush at the water’s edge

Sewall (1995, p. 207) states that mindfulness can help to attune our attention to new, ecological, perceptions of the world. By reflecting upon our modes of awareness we learn to influence processes of perception. According to Sewall (1995), deliberate moderation becomes a self-reinforcing change as we cultivate neural pathways of attention and cognition. During my practice I learnt to relax away from day-to-day preoccupations beyond Flood Creek, and to attend from a mental state of creative receptivity. This attentive focus required a sort of “letting-go”, and an uncritical acceptance of undirected (intuitive) attention which drifted over the elements of my surroundings. As an artistic novice, I experienced this activity as similar to Tai Chi practice. It required an effort of sorts, but this was an effort to relax my conscious mind and to engage with the relaxation. As a result, I felt I began to perceive and consider details of my environment that normally would not intrude upon my preoccupied conscious thought.

Sewall’s Tenet 2: Learning to perceive the relations

Sewall (1995, p. 208) discusses the need for a shift from perceiving individual objects to an appreciation of the contextual relations in which they occur. As I pondered this idea in regard to my practice, I realised rather than representing distinct objects in my environment, my creative responses could only ever be a representation of relations—an entirely subjective selection of relations within which I am momentarily situated. An image of a forest scene might show components which we name (in English) “trees”, “moss”, “vines”, “leaf-litter”, “sunlight” and “insects”, but all of these must relate together in a certain combination to compose our mental notion of a “forest”.

Each named object-entity itself is composed of a multitude of further relations: evolutionary relations, climatological, historical and geomorphological, specific and general, proximate and ultimate, among an infinite host of others. A particular wasp is a collection of relations between thorax, antennae, eyes, wings and legs; between daily goals and the goals of a life cycle; between the wasp-individual and wasp-others; and between it and non-wasps. Every facet exists in a certain ecological relation to whichever “object” we choose to perceive; be it the wasp’s wing, the wasp itself, the wasp nest, the buzzing tree-hollow, the whole tree, the living forest or the pulsating biotic planet Earth.

Ben Gleeson photo 4

Digital photograph: A tangle of relations

As humans, we focus at times upon one or several of these relationships to compose our mental picture of the reality around us. Karen Barad (2003) observes that we take representational “cuts” from reality and perceive only the isolated fragments extracted via this process. In doing so, we suppress a multitude of other relations woven into the fabric of reality. This is a necessary and subconscious habit of our cognition. We focus attention upon certain kinds, and certain levels, of relation and ignore an infinite number of others as background “relational-noise” within any given moment of perception.

Existing attitudes towards the organisms living at Flood Creek seemed to provide an uncommon demonstration of human predilection for perceiving objects rather than relations. Almost all of the plants growing here are officially categorised as “environmental weeds”. But, while it seems reasonable to expect that these species could be a disruptive threat within existing native ecological assemblages elsewhere, the malignance of their presence at Flood Creek seemed muted and questionable given that here they flourish within a sylvan context composed almost entirely of other exotic species. After a few weeks of visiting the site and the organisms living there, I began to wonder, “why is it people can’t see this wood for the weeds?

Weed objects

Were these but objects,

so, there be no Union.

No fear that we could destroy the whole,

for there is no whole.

No ‘One’.

Just this one,

and that one,

with no relation between.

Each lumped together,

without any belonging.

My increasing perception of forest-ness at this site was due to recognition of the natural structural composition and inevitable ecological interactions occurring there. I know that from a certain perspective it seems surprising (perhaps even slightly disappointing) that relationships between living entities can emerge without millennia of co-evolution within a “pristine” ecological community. The particular assemblage of species at Flood Creek could be entirely unique, but this self-composed community demonstrates an aspect of existence that is clearly very widespread. There is an ecological principle at-play here—one not so apparent within our abstracted and mythically-changeless ideals of “pristine” pre-European Australia. Toby Hemenway (2009) observes this ecological inclination to relate in the emergence of self-moderating Permaculture gardens. He states, ” … nature adheres to a deep order. It is almost as if living beings ‘want’ to come together into coherent communities. Given half a chance, plants and animals will self-organize into a connected whole.” (Hemenway, 2009, p. 194)

Co-founder of the Permaculture concept, David Holmgren (2002), has, over a long period of time, taken a particular interest in what he calls “weedscapes” occurring in unmanaged pockets of landscape. He and Haikai Tane describe the process that draws organisms into organised and self-sustaining communities as a form of “ecosynthesis” (Holmgren, 2002, 2011; Holmgren preface in Orion, 2015; Tane, 1993, 1999). In contrast with this notion of “synthesis”, many common formulations of ecological and evolutionary processes overemphasise themes of intrinsic conflict in the “struggle for survival”. This struggle is framed as a continuous battle by each organism to control, dominate, or vanquish various components of its ecological context. Such limited perceptions obscure and downplay the demonstrably cooperative outcomes of ecological interaction. Ecosystems exist only because of the interrelations that allow various species components and communities to survive and reproduce. The concept of ecosynthesis describes the emergence of relations between species that might, or might not, have previously formed such ties together. Recent developments in “novel ecosystems” science have focused the attention of a generation of ecological practitioners upon this naturally synthetic process (Hobbs et al., 2006; Seastedt, Hobbs and Suding, 2008). An understanding of ecosynthesis could provide insights which promote further ecological perception and might be used to inform intelligent human ecological interactions. The “struggle for survival” is not a battle for domination, rather it is an ongoing effort to create and occupy an ecological niche, a grand labour towards integration and interrelation.

Three years before I began my Human Ecology practice, I discovered a small Eucalyptus viminalis seedling growing in a pot of parsley that we had transported from former bush-accommodation to our new home in Braidwood. I decided to release this tree “back into the wild” beside peri-urban Flood Creek. I duly planted and watered it, and erected a wire guard around it to protect it from browsing by local swamp wallaby. It grew well and was just over a metre tall when I returned to conduct my creative practice within this largely exotic riparian forest.

Gum fight

Lonely new gum.

Caged and protected.

Set apart, and yet,

no hatred for the wild invaders that surround you.

Like them, you fight,

in an endless battle,

for harmonious relation.

Immersed in our epic struggle,

simply to belong.

Sewall’s Tenet 3: Developing perceptual flexibility

My curiosity regarding the way these wild volunteers had arranged themselves to form a riparian forest structure (over-storey, understorey, shrubs, ground-covers, vines, semi-aquatics and aquatics) prompted me to consider the area more closely. I was fascinated by the forest phenomenon I perceived and yet struggled to articulate. I spoke about Flood Creek to a friend within our urban-Landcare Group, but she shied away from conceptualising this vegetation as anything but a random collection of invaders that had displaced the native ecology that “should really” occur in this location. I recall she said, “I can see how it looks like a forest … but it’s not”.

Within the Human Ecology learning-space, I had recognised an opportunity to explore novel perceptions of reality and I deliberately took it. I know I can look at the vegetation of Flood Creek as a random collection of “all the worst weeds in the world” (I have at times in the past), but I wanted to practice new ways of perceiving it and see what this might reveal. I was aware that there had been little active human intervention at this site for more than sixty years (when the oldest willows were planted to stabilise erosion). On the face of it, it seemed wild and organic, so why should it be perceived as somehow unnatural? It is not as if this community suddenly sprang forth to dominate a pristine native ecology; it has emerged over nearly 200 years following the deliberate removal of the pre-existing vegetation. Its level of diversity is comparable to any degraded and disturbed forest—native or otherwise. So what makes this an illegitimate ecological community? Why is it a forest of weeds? What aspects of the celebrated “natural world” have been banished from this space, and what of nature remains? Even today, I have not resolved my conscious perceptions around these questions; there remains a level of inconsistency; it is as if what I now perceive at this site is not one thing or another, but untidy aspects of both.

Ben Gleeson photo 5

Ink painting: Unnatural pied currawongs perched in a winter willow

Writing in the early nineties, Sewall (1995, pp. 202–3) discusses schools of thought which, she says, are moving towards recognition of “an ecological self”, one not defined in opposition to the outside world, but existing within a “radical awareness of interdependence”. Val Plumwood (2008, p. 328) describes how, “an ecological understanding of the self” may help us to formulate “reshaping narratives and practices” much needed at this time of ecological crises. Similar notions are inherent within Karen Barad’s (2003) concept of “intra-action”, which explicitly acknowledges the formative contextualisation of apparent individuals within a single overarching reality. It seems counter-intuitive, but perhaps the ultimate realisation of “self” leads inevitably to personal dissipation within something even more ultimate, something beyond the deceptive and limited boundaries of our distinct individuality.

At one point during my practice at Flood Creek, I witnessed an autumn leaf falling from a willow tree. This event provoked the first line of a new poem, “Leaf”. This poem encapsulates a moment of pondering in regard to the ecological-self discussed above. Following the thoughts of Martin Buber (1971), our Human Ecology assessment task invited students to explore the use of the second-person pronoun “Thou” within our creative engagement. With this in mind, I used “Thou” to encapsulate the entirety of biotic reality beyond my subjective self. This provided an opportunity to ponder the ethereal and permeable boundaries existing between “us”.


A leaf falls,

and so starts life anew.

Thou soul encompassed in perpetual beginnings.

Share I too,

this soul of joy and darkness?

Where then is thy end?

As I watched it fall, I realised this leaf would soon be consumed and incorporated as soil biota, so, in a sense, beginning life again. This led to consideration of its “soul” transformed into new life, or perhaps, many new lives, as its essence might now animate multiple microscopic others. It would follow that this “leaf-soul” must have lived on multiple occasions and as many other beings in the past. As such, there could only really be a single animate soul on this Earth—one constantly borrowed and shared between all living entities; continually dying and yet being reincorporated and reborn in new forms. Knowing that I am a result of the evolutionary process—and considering I must then share a common ancestor with all life on this planet—I paused to consider myself as a fleeting participant in this life and death of the one animating soul. This experimental form of self-awareness clearly touches upon insights of a metaphysical nature—no branch of western science presently discusses our universal biotic relatedness as the sharing of a single unified soul. And yet, this ecologically shared animus and our genetic descent from one original replicating ancestor is the undeniable scientific reality for all life on Earth.


We are but patterns,

carved by process,

into matter.

Becoming and unbecoming,

simultaneously in synchronicity.


and again,

and again,

and never again the same,

but always,

and forever,


fitted together.

Sewall’s Tenet 4: Learning to reperceive depth

I chose Flood Creek for my practice largely because of previous engagement as a Landcare volunteer in this area. However, I was also persuaded by Sewall’s framing of a descent into the Grand Canyon as conducive to reperceiving ourselves existing “within a biosphere, rather than “on a planet (Sewall, 1995, p. 212). Somewhat contrastingly, our Human Ecology study materials contained a discussion of Deep Ecology written by Arne Naess (1989) and I was interested to note that much of Naess’s work on this topic was completed in a mountain cabin, high above the snowline in Norway. I found the notion that deep ecology had been formulated from a position of significant altitude an amusing juxtaposition—a deep ecological philosophy formulated in elevated isolation.

Initially, I considered climbing Braidwood’s diminutive local version of a mountain (Mount Gillamatong) to conduct my ecological practice, but, in the end, despite the allure of the mountain-top perspective, I chose the more accessible position amongst the exotic forest that lines the Flood Creek incision. Whilst the banks of Flood Creek are not so incised as to compare to the Grand Canyon, some of the trees stand around 40 metres tall and I thought this would promote a similar perspective. Enveloped by towering vegetation, it is easier to perceive the biosphere surrounding and supporting us in every direction.

Ben Gleeson photo 5b

Colour photograph: Winter-dormant poplars framed by ivy-clad willows at Flood Creek

According to Sewall (1995) we may experience “psychological repercussions” following an ecological reperception of depth. Situating ourselves within our living planet, we become aware of our relative insignificance and must accept the limit of our ability to dominate this biosphere. This can lead to a joyous freedom from our “need to control”, and may prompt, instead, a reverential communion with the ecological world around us (Sewall, 1995, p. 213). Working amongst the wild exotic vegetation at Flood Creek, I often thought of our ongoing efforts to eradicate many non-native organisms from within Australia’s national borders, and pondered our escalating passion for “biosecurity”. In light of the increasingly militarised terminology of our endless “war on weeds”, I need no further demonstration of the human aspiration to complete ecological control.

As a student of ecological agriculture, I recognise this same aspiration in our maintenance of modern agricultural monocultures—which Donna Harraway and Anna Tsing reference within the notion of “the Plantation-ocene” (Lassila, 2015a). We inflict these impoverished ecological spaces upon our living Earth despite all biological imperatives to diversity and complexity. Our lack of awareness regarding our place as embedded components within the landscapes that we cultivate leads many to misperceive the relative depth at play. In real life, we are enveloped by this biosphere, not standing over and looking down upon it. Our illusory perception of control is a result of determinedly myopic cultural narratives. We repetitively misconstrue unsustainable abuse and ecological degradation as triumphant human mastery, but forget that “control” and “abuse” are two very different things.

Sewall’s Tenet 5: Intentional use of imagination

Although it is often assumed that artistic endeavours require an indulgence of the imagination that would be inappropriate elsewhere. This is not an accurate representation of imagination or how we use it. In “Imagination: Creating a New Reality”, Sewall (1999) describes picturing the whole moon using her imagination whilst only a half-moon is visible. This simple example demonstrates that imagination is not all fanciful concoction; much of our normal rational experience of reality relies upon it. Imagination is a vital part of perception, and deliberate imagining can be a valid tool for aligning our ecological worldview.

At times, I deliberately practiced using imagination amongst the Flood Creek vegetation. Having allowed my attention to settle upon a willow trunk, I could extend my focus beyond what I saw using my eyes to consider aspects of the tree that I can know only conceptually. I imagined the flow of sap up and down within the trunk of the tree; I imagined the stress of physical loads placed upon it as it supported and anchored the swaying canopy, towering above; I imagined the tree’s roots spreading through the soil; and I imagined the multitude of other organisms living in, on, under, and around it.

I used imagination in other ways too; ways that enabled entirely speculative reconfigurations of reality. Sewall states, “… there is an art to this. It is the ability to free one’s view from the conditioned and programmed worldview unpatterning the assumed world and then to artfully stitch it back together through the power of cultivated imagination.” (Sewall, 1999) At one point, whilst observing a stand of leafless winter-dormant willows, I imagined them as people reaching their branch-arms towards the sky and I decided to explore this image on paper.

Ben Gleeson photo 6

Ink painting: Trees-as-people, people-as-trees

Painting these tree-people, I realised a conceptual shift; playing with words, I considered “trees-as-people”, but then also “people-as-trees”. Following this, my painting became something different. Instead of seeing trees as people (i.e., anthropomorphised trees), I imagined people as trees—Homo sapiens so integrated into their environment that, like trees, they become supportive keystone components of the surrounding ecology. This resonates with the way that Bill Gammage (2011) describes Aboriginal cultivation maintaining pre-European ecologies in Australia. According to Gammage, Australia’s indigenous people played a vital role as cultured and cultivating participants within landscape. Other living presences co-adapted to the activities of the people, and novel Australian ecological communities wove themselves together, with humans and their cultivation as intrinsic features.

Ecological perceptions of human cultivation

For me, this embedded perspective of human cultivation contrasts with the oppositional way we often perceive modern agriculture in Australia today. The general expectation is that cultivation is properly and entirely an unnatural aspect of our biosphere, separated from the ecological reality that preceded deliberate human modification. Would it alter our modes of cultivation if we could reformulate our current self–perception to acknowledge that we are, in fact, intrinsic components of the ecologies that we cultivate? From the perspective of evolutionary and ecological science, it seems foolish to pretend that we could be anything else. So, how long will present-day agriculturalists (and the urbanised populations that rely upon them) imagine themselves and their actions as somehow detached from the ecological world? Furthermore, how long will our ideals of ecology in Australia be reduced and compartmentalised as everything that is “pristine”, “untouched”, and pre-European, that is, never us today, but always a sub-set of idealised and supplanted others?

It is as if ecological processes were extinguished (like native title perhaps?) at the time when Europeans arrived upon Australian shores. The exotic species that dominate Flood Creek are condemned to the same meta-ecological space as any human arriving after 1788. Human cultivation is relegated in this way too—as if somehow supernatural. This explains why authors like Bill Gammage (2011) and Bruce Pascoe (2014) struggle to establish the notion of Aboriginal people as cultivators of Australian landscapes; the practice of human management in pre-European Australia does not sit comfortably beside fabricated ideals of a “pristine” natural world existing before the arrival of “civilised” and “enlightened” human cultivators from Europe.

As part of current discussions around the impacts of the Anthropocene, and calls for a “rewilding” of the Earth’s landscapes, E. O. Wilson has recently proposed that an entire half of the planet should be abandoned by humans in favour of “wild nature” (Mingle, 2015). Within the context of our thinking about Human Ecology, it seems important to ask whether an evacuation like this would leave Homo sapiens better-integrated with the planetary biosphere, or would reinforce the idealised separation so typical of dominant scientific epistemologies. Would this segregated rewilding significantly alter humanity’s self-perceptions and our attitudes towards the nonhuman presences of this biosphere? Or, would it simply lead to more corporate conservation, with more herbicide and poison baits, and more human “biosecurity” of wild spaces ad infinitum?

Tsing seems to offer an alternative to this vision in her discussion of “auto-rewilders” (Lassila, 2015b; Tsing, 2015). This concept points to an ecological persistence and recovery that is not excessively delineated, managed, or controlled by human biosecurity forces. Furthermore, it attributes an explicit agency to the non-human inhabitants of Earth, an agency that is never acknowledged within present narratives of weed and pest management. Auto-rewilding perfectly describes the formation of the forest within peri-urban Flood Creek: a reassertion of riparian ecology incorporating the wild genetic material at hand. There are strong parallels between this auto-rewilding and the notion of “eco-synthesis” described by Holmgren and Tane (Holmgren, 2002, 2011; Tane, 1993, 1999). Whilst other visions of rewilding seem based on an expansion of existing management programs (where nature is maintained in an ecological stasis representing the ideal pre-human condition), auto-rewilding offers a potential to embrace novel eco-synthesised landscapes, and to recognise the legitimate agency of “weedy” other-than-human actors which form functional “wild” landscapes even in the presence of human cultivation and modification.

Daisyworld Police

Why now?

At the end of the world,

so many paper-trail storm-troopers,

all ‘just doing their job’.

The budget is spent,

and all contracts extended,

and every single moment of existence here on Earth,

requires another meeting,

a new policy,

a new program,

to maintain our compartmental fervour,

and to run this dear,


daisy-world into the ground.

To the right thinking,

all human narrative seems entropic,

antibiotic and unreal.

Still your mind,

you chattering monkey,2

and the Earth will speak for itself.

Weeds of the world, rise up!

Agriculture is fundamental to human existence. Whether as a fatal error in our ecological interactions, or as a potential solution to all of our present ills, cultivation of the ecological systems around us will continue for as long as we draw breath upon this Earth. Even as idealised hunter-gathers, we must inevitably cultivate via our interaction within surrounding ecologies, and we must learn to do so in an ecologically-integrated manner. But what we need today is a transformational ecological shift in our mode of agricultural activity. To achieve this we may first need to nurture a capacity to reflect upon our own acquired beliefs, motivations and worldview. Above all else, we will need to situate ourselves as ecological participants.

Logically, this will require an expanded ecological ideal—one that also includes the various animals and plants we currently discount because of their association with our own species. In particular, this means domesticated organisms, whose agency, ethical treatment and happiness may depend upon being cultivated as components of diversified landscape ecologies. But it also means our wild familiars, the weeds—the unmanaged and unmanageable—those organisms whose rampant agency and undeniable intent are a lesson in ecological interaction. As Tao Orion (2015) notes in her remarkable book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, “The presence of invasive species is not necessarily a problem to be solved, but rather an invitation to delve deeply into understanding the complex ecosystem dynamics to which they are intrinsically related.” (Orion, 2015, p. 43) As with any conflict, the annihilation of perceived enemies may seem desirable, but transcending the “war on weeds” will require more thoughtful integration than is currently in evidence. This is equally true for both agriculturalists and environmentalists. Instead of war and destruction, successful ecological practitioners may need to wage a little more observant creativity.

Human Ecology and Ecological Agriculture at CSU

Much of the thinking behind the Ecological Agriculture degree program has been documented elsewhere (Cochrane, 2006, 2007; Cochrane, Raman and McKenzie, 2007; McKenzie, Morgan, Cochrane, Watson and Roberts, 2002; Raman, 2013; Raman, McKenzie and Cochrane, 2006). Human Ecology is just one of the units offered as part of this degree. The range of topics enable knowledge and experience across multiple areas of understanding, including standard mechanistic and reductionist agricultural foundations, as well as more socially, ecologically and holistically integrated fields.

I have spoken with other students about their experience of Human Ecology and, as might be expected, opinions vary. My impression is that not everyone is comfortable in the unashamedly expansive learning space provided by this subject and its creative major assessment item. My own perspective is that these aspects offered an unusual opportunity to examine our personal epistemologies and ontologies under an ecological lens. Such an examination seems essential prior to any attempt to understand wider systems in light of ecological science. The threads that bind this world together are not all “out there”. Those who aspire to ecological thinking without considering the ecology of mind and culture will very quickly find themselves mired on the beaten path of reductionist fragmentation with a wilfully limited understanding of reality.

Almost as a postscript to this article, I recently heard that CSU administrators have decided to discontinue the Ecological Agriculture degree. Despite some sadness, I feel this may be a good thing. From my personal observations it seemed that CSU never understood the degree that it accidentally acquired from the University of Sydney when it purchased the Orange campus in 2005. After many unsympathetic alterations of the curriculum, and a notable change in overall outlook, student demand is reportedly no longer what it once was. Fortunately, a new Ecological Agriculture degree program is being developed at the National Environment Centre (NEC) in Thurgoona, NSW. Given the outlook and previous activity at the NEC, this development offers significant hope for the application of ecological science to future agricultural learning and endeavour in Australia.


  1. Poetry presented in this article is essentially unedited from the originals submitted for undergraduate assessment. As such, I appreciate it may transgress some conventions of ecopoetry and ecopoetics. I hope professional readers of Plumwood Mountain will indulge any disciplinary naiveté on my part.
  2. The expression “chattering monkey” is intended to reference both our primate heritage and certain thought processes encountered and moderated during meditative practice. In meditation, the term “monkey-mind” is sometimes used to describe the overstimulated and unfocussed “chattering” which can pervade human narrative consciousness.


Appleby, Mary, Judy Knowles and Rebecca Cole (undated). Revegetation for Braidwood: A Guide to Selecting and Identifying Appropriate Native Trees and Shrubs. Upper Shoalhaven Landcare.

Barad, Karen (2003). “Post-humanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of how Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(3): 801–31.

Buber, Martin (1971). I and Thou, translated by W. Kauffman. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons.

Cochrane, Kerry (2006). “Is Agricultural Education Heading in the Right Direction and What Direction Might That Be?”. In Organics – Solutions to Climate Change. Proceedings of the 3rd OFA National Organics Conference, edited by Paul Kristiansen and Cheryl Kemp, 62–66. Bellingen, NSW: Organic Federation of Australia.

Cochrane, Kerry (2007). “Artistic Expression as a Means of Creating Holistic Thinkers in the Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture”. International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability 3(1): 63–70.

Cochrane, Kerry, Anantanarayanan Raman and Anthony McKenzie (2007). “Agricultural Management Education in Australia: Genesis of a New Degree Programme in Ecological Agriculture”. Environmental Education Research 13(3): 349–66.

Gammage, Bill (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Hemenway, Toby (2009). Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd edn. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Hobbs, Richard. J., et. al. (2006). “Novel Ecosystems: Theoretical and Management Aspects of the New Ecological World Order”. Global Ecology and Biogeography 15(1): 1–7.

Holmgren, David. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Vic.: Holmgren Design Services.

Holmgren, David. (2011). “Weeds or Wild Nature: A Permaculture Perspective”. Plant Protection Quarterly 26(3).;dn=331792614618654;res=IELHSS

Lassila, Maija (2015a). An Interview with Anna Tsing. Helsinki: The Finnish Anthropological Society.

Lassila, Maija. (2015b). “‘Auto-rewilding’ Landscapes and the Anthropocene – Interview with Anna Tsing”.

McKenzie, Anthony. D., Christopher K. Morgan, Kerry W. Cochrane, Geoff K. Watson and David W. Roberts (2002). “Authentic Learning: What Is It, and What Are the Ideal Curriculum Conditions to Cultivate It in”. In Quality Conversations: Proceedings of the 25th HERDSA Annual Conference, Perth, Western Australia, 426–33. Citeseer.

Mingle, Jonathan (2015). “E.O. Wilson on Saving Half the Earth”. Breakthroughs: The Magazine of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources, (Spring).

Naess, Arne (1989). “Ecosophy T: Unity and Diversity of Life”. In  Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, translated and edited by David Rothenberg, 163–212. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Orion, Tao (2015). Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Pascoe, Bruce (2014). Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Broome, WA: Magabala Books.

Plumwood, Val (2008). “Tasteless: Towards a Food-Based Approach to Death”. Environmental Values 17(3): 323–30.

Raman, Anantanarayanan (2013). “Linking Holistic and Reductionist Approaches: Teaching of the Undergraduate Subject Introduction to Ecological Agriculture”. The Agricultural Education Magazine 85(4): 22–24.

Raman, Anantanarayanan, Anthony McKenzie and Kerry Cochrane (2006). “Enhancing Learner Capabilities in Undergraduate Science Programmes through Small-scale Research Activity”. Current Science 90(9): 1183–87.

Seastedt, Timothy R., Richard J. Hobbs and Katharine N. Suding (2008). “Management of Novel Ecosystems: Are Novel Approaches Required?” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(10): 547–53.

Sewall, Laura (1995). “The Skill of Ecological Perception”. In Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kaunder, 201–15.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Sewall, Laura. (1999). “Imagination: Creating a New Reality”. Orion Magazine (Autumn).

Tane, Haikai (1993). Ecography: Mapping and Modeling Landscape Ecosystems. Technical Manual. Canberra, ACT: Murray Darling Basin Commission.

Tane, Haikai (1999). “Landscape Ecostructures For Sustainable Societies: Post-Industrial Perspectives”. Watershed Systems Limited, Training and Research Centre, Twizel, New Zealand.

Tsing, Anna (2015). “The Buck, the Bull, and the Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene”. Presented at “Landscapes, Sociality and Materiality”, Biennial Conference of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Helsinki.


Many thanks are due to Kerry Cochrane (as Human Ecology subject coordinator) for facilitating an exceedingly rare and precious experimental space for students of the ecological agriculture degree. Thanks also to Helen Cochrane for her role in encouraging our first steps into artistic expression.

Published: February 2016
Ben Gleeson

Following early studies in Politics and History and Philosophy of Science, Ben Gleeson worked for 15 years in conventional horticulture and viticulture. He has been intensively involved as a Landcare volunteer in and around Braidwood, NSW. His academic background consists of a Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture and Bachelor of Science (Hons) from Charles Sturt University. Ben’s honours project focussed upon the ecogeomorphology of incised floodplain landscapes following European occupation. His research has consistently framed humanity and its agricultural pursuits within an evolutionary and ecological perspective.


Adapted for land: a lungfish writes the sea

by Brook Emery

Perhaps we write about the sea to exert dominion.

According to the book of “Genesis” in the Christian Bible, on the third day God “called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good” (1,10). On the fifth day God created great whales and “every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly” (1, 21). On the sixth day God created man and woman, commanded them, “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1,28) and gave them dominion over all living creatures including the fish of the sea. God also brought all living creatures before Adam “to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature that was the name thereof” (2, 19).

Perhaps we exert this dominion not by commanding the tide as Canute was supposed to have done or scourging the waves as Xerxes reportedly did – both stories serving to illustrate the hubris of humans and the indifference of the sea – but by naming it and writing about it, acculturating it.

In Landscape and Memory Simon Schama notes the promise of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” (7), but goes on to argue that “the healing wilderness was as much a product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden” (7), and that “even the landscapes we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product” (9). This is not just in the way human society seeks to shape, conquer, tame or preserve wilderness as it exists in the raw, material world but in the way in which we conceive it, perceive it, and write about it. Perhaps to write about the sea, to name it, is to exert control even if, explicitly, the writer is trying to assert the subject’s non-human qualities, its existence as distinct from the human. For Gaston Bachelard, writing in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, “imagination is not … the faculty for forming images of reality; it is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing the world around us” (16), and “favourite images thought to be derived from things seen in the world around us … are nothing but projections of a hidden soul” (17). It is for this reason that Bachelard, though interested in material imagination (1) and in “images that stem directly from matter” limits himself to studying “the different branches of materializing imagination above the graft after culture has put its mark on nature” (10). Through our imaginations, our “prereflexive attitudes” in Bachelard’s terms (17), we make the sea over in our own image and likeness.

Perhaps writing about the sea is all sex and theory.

I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon in June. I was swimming this morning just after dawn, swimming because there were no waves to speak of and surfing was not possible. Later, as I was driving to the shops, I heard a snippet of an interview on the radio. A philosopher was speaking about her research into the impulse to make art, that “useless, pleasurable activity”. She spoke of the creative act as sexual. Too Freudian, I thought, too easy, too clever by half, too reductive and ready to see any act or utterance as the projection or sublimation of something else, too ready to theorise rather than experience. Is this what we do when we write about the sea? Theorise it: the sea as female, as mother, lover, animal, muse, imagination, mirror, origin, infinity, myth and dream. What of how the sea is experienced as distinct from how it is imagined and written about? I take physical pleasure from the sea: the sea, unknowingly, gives me pleasure. I could construct a crude, sustained, sexual metaphor for the trajectory of catching a large wave: anticipation, nervousness, excitement, control, loss of control, orgasm, fulfilment, withdrawal. But it wouldn’t be true. It would be art or theory. Of course, being in the sea is bodily, even intimate – in contact with, within, held – but once translated to the page this sensation is only sex in the head. Even the word “intimate” is wrong, a misapplication, an anthropomorphism: how can one be intimate with something as vast and indivisible as the sea? I’ve heard it said that boardriders are inarticulate about their experiences of the surf, unable or unwilling to describe what it is like, limiting their talk to excited, conventionalised exclamations: “Fuck, did you see that wave?”, “awesome”, “filthy”, “I got air”. I don’t know how true this is but there is a tendency, once machismo has been extracted from the conversation, for good surfers to be modest, to prefer understatement, to prefer to keep one’s thoughts private rather than to intellectualise and broadcast them. If surfing is a taking of pleasure, writing is more about giving pleasure, sharing an experience in the hope that your work will be understood and liked by the reader: your pleasure, at least to some extent, dependent on a reader’s approval.

Perhaps, though, both surfing and writing are about ego.

Surfing and writing as contests, tests of skill, will and courage. Writing as a struggle with words against the impossibility of meaning. Surfing as a struggle against the natural, the other, against the self and fear. Bachelard claims that “more than anyone else, the swimmer can say: the world is my will; the world is my provocation. It is I who stir up the sea” (168). This strikes me as nonsense, something asserted by one whose watery element is the fresh water of lakes and streams. Bachelard has a name for the muscular action of swimming and the dynamic imagination he considers necessary to construct images of the activity. He calls it the Swinburne complex (167) after the late nineteenth century poet whom he quotes as saying to a friend, “I remember being afraid of other things, but never of the sea” (165). Bachelard quotes both Swinburne (“My lips will feast on the foam of thy lips / … Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine / thy large embraces are keen like pain”)(169) and Byron (“Cloven with arm still lustier, breast more daring / the wave all roughen’d; with a swimmer’s stroke / Flinging the billows back from my drench’d hair, / And laughing from my lip the audacious brine”)(170) to illustrate both the sexuality and intimacy of swimming and the ambivalence of the complex which he sees as both masochistic and sadistic. Perhaps I am irredeemably superficial but Bachelard’s interpretation, and Swinburne’s and Byron’s poetry, annoy me. The poetic images seem too rhetorical, conventional and self-dramatising; Bachelard’s interpretation, indeed the thesis of his whole essay, seems to rely too much on assertion and assumption of hidden psychological motivations for the action of both swimming and writing. Such an aesthetic is unnecessary and I would argue that an empirical and phenomenological approach which respects the integrity of both the body and matter is just as capable of elucidating deep “truths” about the meaning of an experience, or the experience of an experience, as is one based on dream, myth and psychoanalysis.

Someone who writes and thinks beautifully about surfing and writing is Fiona Capp. In that oceanic feeling Capp reveals she wrote her first novel, Night Surfing, in the belief that surfing could “symbolise something much larger than the act itself”(51) and out of the hope that she could turn her failure to master surfing into a work of art. But this act of sublimation is incapable of satisfying her because it fails to elicit the sheer bodily joy of surfing. Later in life Capp returns to the sea and documents her renewed attempts to master the art of surfboard riding in that oceanic feeling which evolves into a history of and meditation on surfing. I love the book and, though I am a bodysurfer rather than a boardrider (and therefore very much at the bottom of the surfing pecking order), I identify with much of what she says. But I want to take issue with one of the central themes she raises, which is also a central theme of much writing, especially Romantic writing, about the sea. (As an aside I should admit here that I have surfed almost every day of my life for over fifty years and that my own poetry is saturated by writing about the sea and I may well commit, time and again, the sins I here castigate and abjure.)

Nature, according to Edmund Burke and the Romantics, is a source of both beauty and the sublime. Beauty is associated with society and with a power less than our own; the sublime with individualism and solitude and with a power greater than our own. Faced with the vastness of the sublime we experience fear, perhaps the fear of death, and astonishment. Identification with the beautiful and sublime in nature produces feelings of awe, transcendence and, in special moments of heightened sensitivity and receptiveness, a feeling of oneness with nature and the interconnectedness of all things. Capp quotes lines 93–102 of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” to illustrate this sense of the sublime:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky and the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things (106)

Capp thinks of a surfer “crouched inside the crystal, womb-like tube of a breaking wave” (11) as an oceanic image of this oneness. In earlier lines from “Tintern Abbey” – Wordsworth’s description of himself running in the landscape, “more like a man / Flying from something he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved” (II 70–72) – Capp identifies her own feelings in the surf. I see myself there too. Fear is a strong emotion when I am out in a big, grey surf. I don’t want it to be, I don’t want to have to confront myself, nature or (the more or less remote possibility of) death. I want the pleasure, the joy, the excitement, without the dread. At times of fear there is no Swinburnian pride, no sense of the oneness of all things, no sense of identification with nature, no time or thought for any sense of awe. What there is when I think about it later, on dry land, is a sense of my alienation from the sea, my difference from it, my weakness compared to it, my sense that I don’t belong. Even on blue, beautiful days when the waves are perfectly formed and there is no sense of danger, even inside that “crystal cylinder” (and doesn’t the repetition of that cliché – a surf brand – “de-activate” the experience?), when there is nothing but the sheer physical elation of surfing, I am aware that, to quote myself, “We are in but never of the sea” (62). At the end of the same poem, “Narcissus: self-portrait with sea”, I write:

To be an intersection, to feel abundance

in this swell and heave, the observer of yourself

as self and as a figure clutching here, falling

and hanging on, fearful and in love.

I see all this. It happens around and to me,

seconds welling in the lungs, weight and weightlessness,

a relentless pressure down. You can’t sink deep enough

to salvage calm, here no flowers bloom, stones don’t speak,

neither Echo nor my twin stares back at me. Sand explodes,

water pummels and I am like a clump of weed.

Here we are material and evanescent, body

against and through the bodily. And on the surface

nothing’s reflected in the foam. It would drag me down again (63).

Though this posits a sense of difference rather than oneness it in no sense diminishes feelings of beauty, wonder and amazement. It may even heighten them, sharpen them. I have a feeling that for all Wordsworth’s undeniable love of nature there is a sense in which he is subsuming nature under the minds of both God and Man, and in this way presuming to claim it, to understand it, and to tame it by theorising it. I prefer to think of myself and the sea as both matter, but matter of different orders which happen to co-exist, and occasionally intersect, as a result of natural processes. (Wordsworth remains, I think, a touchstone despite more recent eco-critical theorising about the Romantic relationship between human society and nature.)

A second objection to the comparison between Wordsworth and surfing resides simply in the comparison between the land and the sea, in the difference (and superficial similarity) between mountain peaks and abysses, thought to inspire the sublime, and waves. One is “on” land, passes “through” countryside and is “in” landscape in a different way to that in which one is “in” the surf. The response to landscape, to mountains, forests, vistas, is primarily through the eye; the response to sea is through the body. To the eye landscape is more various, the sea more unvarying. With the exception of things like avalanches and volcanoes the landscape is less obviously moving, less an agent; the sea moves, sometimes violently, it acts on you; the interaction between you and the sea is greater though, paradoxically, we have a greater presence and effect on the land, we leave our mark on it; we displace the sea but pass through it without trace. Evolution has privileged the human eye. As has literature. Imagery, I’d guess, is overwhelmingly visual and this suits landscape and, to an extent, seascape, but it makes writing about the “experience” of the surf difficult.

There is no escaping ego. To write about the sea (or landscape, or anything else) is to write about the self (and this holds, I think, no matter what randomised or predetermined procedures are used to disguise, efface or distance the authorial self from the subject, or how ecologically conscious or politically or psychologically self-aware we are), and to this extent I agree with Bachelard. I don’t think this is something to be apologised for – we are as we are – just something to be recognised. When we write of the sea we use it for our own purposes. We measure ourselves against it, make of it a scene, a location, a means of transport, an explanation, an analogy, a symbol, a metaphor, a cliché; we personify and anthropomorphise it; we ask it to mirror our moods and thoughts. Writing, we do not harm it in the way our commerce harms it, the creatures in it and, in the long term, ourselves; we may even write to save the sea from the human but I doubt, given the gap between words and things, description and experience, we ever go much beyond writing about ourselves, beyond using the natural to describe the human. And here I acknowledge that “we”, as I have been using it in this essay, is a generalisation, a reflection of my reading, and an admission of my complicity in the process. It excludes Indigenous cultures which may have a totally different relationship to the sea from the more or less Anglo-centric writers I am thinking about and citing here.

Three of the first four poems in a section called “description” in the high school text mainly modern are poems about the sea by Australian poets: “Boys Asleep on the Beach” by Douglas Stewart, “Skin Diver” by Thomas Shapcott, and the much anthologised “The Surfer” by Judith Wright (21–22). For each the sea threatens the human: Stewart implores the sea, “Go back, black sea, go home”; Shapcott warns, “Fisherman beware, the ocean cool / as morning music and as light as stars / hides other things than day and flatteries”; and Wright implores, “Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer turn home.” All three adopt the position of observer, they write what they see and think rather than what they experience, other than from empathy and memory. Judith Wright’s poem comes closest to catching the experience of being in the sea – “How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil / of green-through weirs of water! / Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water” – but, considered as a whole, the poem doesn’t convince me. I’m uneasy with the anthropomorphism of “muscle of water”; I cringe a little at the use of “joy”, “delight”, “mortal, masterful, frail” which feel like imposed abstractions rather than experiences which grow from the poem; I can’t believe her comparison of a wave to a hawthorn hedge – it is too static, too strained, too landed; and the personification at the end of the poem of the sea as a grey wolf is too literary – there might be a visual correspondence between grey fur and a ragged grey sea but the real correspondence here is emotional; it is meant to evoke fear but it does not evoke an experience which is commensurate with the surf – the threats posed by a wolf and the sea are qualitatively different. The poem, beloved as it is (and, despite these comments, I like it too, and all Wright’s work, and wish I could write like her), feels, to my taste, to bear the signs of “poem-making” and of making of the sea something which it is not; to produce culture’s image of the sea.

Similar tropes may be readily found. Here are the opening lines to the also much anthologised poem “The Sea” by the English poet James Reeves:

The sea is a hungry dog,

Giant and grey.

He rolls on the beach all day.

With his clashing teeth and shaggy jaws

Hour upon hour he gnaws …

And here is the first stanza of “Sailor’s Yarn” by Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in a translation by Robin Fulton:

There are bare winter days when the sea is kin

to mountain country, crouching in gray plumage,

a brief minute blue, long hours with waves like pale

lynxes vainly seeking hold in the beach gravel.  (8)

As with the poems quoted earlier, here the approach to the sea is mainly visual, at a distance, and heavily reliant on metaphor and personification. Thom Gunn, like Judith Wright, attempts to render the experience of surfing in the description of surfboard riders in these three stanzas from “From the Wave” which are reproduced in The Oxford Book of the Sea:

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight

With a learned skill.

It is the wave they imitate

Keeps them so still.

Their marbling bodies have become

Half wave, half men,

Grafted it seems by feet of foam

Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face

In timed procession:

Balance is triumph in this place,

Triumph possession.  (487)

Again this is primarily observational rather than experiential, again there is the Wordsworthian identification; here also is the naked triumph of the ego, and images, rhythm and rhyme which seem incongruent with the experience of surfing: “timed procession” being the most inapposite example.

Though it is not about the sea the following lines from Chase Twichell’s poem “The Pools” come closer to my experience of the sea:

It was the thing outside the human

that I loved, and the way

I could enter it,

the muscle ache of diving

down into the cold, green-brown spangles,

myself a part of the glimmering blur,

the falling coins of light     (9).

I think it is the spare simplicity of the saying that attracts me to these lines. They are not made over into anything beyond themselves; the only figurative language (“coins of light”) touches gently and is visually accurate. Clearly I also like the lines because I share the sentiments. It might be argued that these sentiments are nothing other than Wordsworth’s sublime and his oneness with nature (“myself a part”) that I objected to earlier and, indeed, the poem begins:

I used to look into the green-brown

pools of the Ausable, the places

where the pouring cold slowed,

and see a mystery there.

I called it God for the way

it made my heart feel crushed

with love for the world outside myself    (7).

But it seems to me that, despite the echo of the beginning of “Tintern Abbey”, the poem doesn’t buy into the whole elevated Wordsworthian thing or Bachelard’s idea that “the true idea of the earth is water” and that “in nature it is water that sees and water that dreams” (31). Modestly the poem admits to the attempt to find something meaningful beyond the apparent but, at the same time, recognises the gap between the human and the non-human even as it tries to leap it. Right at the beginning that “used to” signals a more steely apprehension. Even as the poem asserts the primacy and importance of beauty and the sublime as wonder and consolation, it makes the melancholy admission that now only “scraps of that beauty survive / in the world here and there” (9). Perhaps it is just that we/I have become too sceptical, or too embarrassed, to be able to say with Wordsworth:

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.   (106)

For Wordsworth nature is, in part, a consolation and an escape from the “din” and “fever of the world”, “the dreary intercourse of daily life”, as is the sea for John Blight who says “… and so the ocean lulls / me into a sense of ease, and I write thus in my books” (56), and goes on writing sonnet after sonnet about the sea. It is not quite so for Fiona Capp:

As I contemplated my return to the water, it wasn’t sober pleasure I was after. Why couldn’t the more mature understanding of nature as something we all “half-create” – through the meanings and desires we bring to it – co-exist with the immediacy of youthful rapture? I had to believe it could. Otherwise I might as well sit back in my armchair and replay my surfing memories and save myself the trouble of getting wet (13–14).

And it is not quite so for me either. We have evolved away from nature. Language and culture are between us and the sea. Our human need to describe and make sense of our experiences, to “mean” them rather than experience them, leads us into convergence and generality: we expect the expected literary experiences, see the sea through literary eyes. Few now accept the Adamic theory of language with which I began this essay and, though it serves us well in the everyday, not many more would accept without qualification a referential theory of language. Recent linguistic theory recognises that the word itself is material and exists in a cultural code independent of nature. So be it. Humans are lungfish adapted for life on land and within culture. We can go back to the sea only momentarily. We have evolved to think and wonder, tell stories, speculate and explain. Writing and reading about the sea will never be the same as being in the sea, will never reproduce that feeling – this is my frustration – as they are pleasures of a different order. They are both pleasures, sometimes difficult pleasures, nonetheless.

“Adapted for Land: A Lungfish Writes the Sea” first appeared in Five Bells: The Journal of the Poets Union 12, no.3 (Winter 2005). This is a revised and updated version of that essay.


Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. Dallas: The Pegasus Foundation, 1983.

Blight, John. A Beachcomber’s Diary. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963.

Capp, Fiona. that oceanic feeling. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2003.

Colmer, John and Dorothy (eds). mainly modern. Adelaide: Rigby, 1971.

Emery, Brook. Uncommon Light. Wollongong: Five Islands Press, 2007.

Raban, Jonathan (ed.). The Oxford Book of the Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992

Reeves, James. Collected Poems 1929–1974. London: Faber and Faber, 1974

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana Press, 1996.

Tranströmer, Tomas. Selected Poems (ed. Robert Hass). Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1987.

Twichell, Chase. The Ghost of Eden. London: faber and faber, 1995.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poetry. New York, Random House, 1950.

Published: February 2016
Brook Emery

Brook Emery’s most recent book, Collusion (John Leonard Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards. His previous three books were all short-listed for the Kenneth Slessor Prize.  and dug my fingers in the sand won the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize.


On Suburbanism’s Open Matrix: birds in poetry of Jean Kent, Dorothy Porter and other Australian poetry

by R. D. Wood

I think of myself as almost exactly half way between Les Murray and Peter Porter. Peter is an amazingly indoor poet, one who inhabits the world of poetry books and opera. I actually don’t like being indoors. I can’t stand being indoors for very long, and like Les, I know accurately things about kinds of trees, species of birds and natural phenomenon of that kind. On the other hand, like Peter and unlike Les, I have been brought up all my life in cities and suburbs, and so the matrix into which I fit is an open matrix.[i]

Chris Wallace-Crabbe

For social poetry to avoid being what Martin Harrison called a “narrow kind of talk”, it must respond to the suburbs, which are the real lived material conditions of the majority of the Australian population.[ii] For example, The Grattan Institute’s City Limits by Paul Donegan and Jane-Frances Kelly shows that more than half of recent population growth in large cities has occurred in outer suburbs more than 20km from city centres.[iii] This suburban lens is not to discount the fringe-dwellers (one percenters and bottom feeders) or the city-country divide, but to suggest that there is a dearth of poetic scholarship on the suburbs.[iv] Indeed, the appreciable body of work on Romanticism-Modernism, pastoralism-the urban is not matched by thinking on Suburbanism.[v] For example in his recent work Writing Australian Unsettlement, Michael Farrell often refers to the division in Australian poetics as being the city and the bush, highlighting the dialectical interplay between these two separated spaces.[vi] But nowhere is there a consideration that there is a third space that mediates such heuristics in an ongoing fashion and that settlement today often manifests in a suburban type of occupation in denial of sovereignty. There is though a minor consideration of suburbia and the eco-poetic, particularly with regard to place-making, including work such as Freya Matthews “CERES: Singing Up in the City” and the ongoing interdisciplinary Suburban Ecology project run by Brandeis University.

Suburbanism is not simply a study of the suburbs, but is the determinate negation of the suburbanite. A suburbanist way would recapture the original geist of the suburbs, the “country living, city benefits” mantra to achieve a type of enlightened, self-aware balance about the possibilities of a permacultured life. This way we could oppose what Robin Boyd called the “featurism” of suburbia.[vii]

In speaking of Australian architecture in the post-war period Boyd highlighted the pervading “ugliness”, owing in part to Featurism and a confusing assemblage of Anglophonic traditions (“Austerican” for example). Boyd, in echoing Karl Krauss’ statement “the root lies on the surface”, stated that “the ugliness I mean is skin deep”.[viii] Featurism was, “not simply a decorative technique; it starts in concepts and extends upwards through the parts to the numerous trimmings. It may be defined as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features.”[ix] This quality is evident in built Australian life and Boyd chronicles its presence in Melbourne’s urban setting (churches and public buildings particularly); Canberra’s planning; the work of pioneers and agoraphobes; as well as other social phenomena. However, he does highlight that:

… the Sydneysider pictures his city from the Harbour or the Bridge, its new white offices piling up against the sky they are trying to scrape. He does not see nor recognize the shabby acres of rust and dust and cracked plaster and lurid signs in the older inner suburbs. The Melburnian thinks of his city as Alexandra Avenue where it skirts the river and the shady top end of Collins Street, which are indeed two of the most civilized pieces of urbanity in the world. He dismisses as irrelevant to this vision the nervy miscellany of the main commercial artery, Swanston Street, not to mention the interminable depression of the flat, by-passed inner suburbs.[x]

Although this comment may have rung truer in Boyd’s era, suburban life is disproportionately absent from critical and cultural debate, from national imagination as a sort of present absence. Despite being the space where most live, the suburbs are not thought of, or thought through, by the official intellectual discourse concerning poetry in Australia, which has tended to ignore the suburban as a category of analysis as suggested earlier.

A critical engagement with featurism can be part of aesthetics and politics outside of architecture too. In relation to poetry, it suggests a lack of thinking structurally, of the whole poem as the case may be, let alone the entire body of work. For Boyd:

The symbol or the image, the miniature of the new aspiration, is applied to the old thing in the hope that it will tinge the whole old thing with new colour. And, to unalerted eyes, indeed a feature can succeed in suffusing the whole of the thing to which it adheres … . The weather-board shed takes on a new aura with a wooden cross attached to the point of the front gable.[xi]

Featurism in poetry specifically could refer to a type of internal defamiliarisation. Rather than the whole poem reacting against an assumed context of intelligibility, whereby the poet is aware of some sociologically unlocated and general habitualised language and writes a complete poem (or linguistic artifact) against it, we might begin to think about a post-structural sort of defamiliarisation.[xii] In this case, the feature of the poem is a moment of interruption. The context, or even voice, has been established and a specific word or phrase breaks the pattern. For example, if one has written: I went for a walk / believing myself to be alone / dithyrambic raiment / of days in sun. The turning point of the poem (dithyrambic raiment) is its feature in so far as it takes us out of the established habit of the poem, which is enabled by the plain direct speech of the first two lines. This is about form, style and content as well as context.

Connected to Boyd’s idea of featurism is sprawl. If the Australian home is made ugly because of its ornaments, we might also say the landscape is made ugly by the sprawl of the ornamented home.[xiii] Boyd is at pains to suggest that Australia is best viewed from the air, for then it has a pleasing uniformity, as land, as geography. The suburbanite’s creep into the natural surrounds is not a cause for celebration, not a sort of “at-easeness” at odds with the tidiness valorised by schoolteachers and urban planners, but a cause for ecological and cultural concern.[xiv] Against these concerns we might propose both to retrofit and to contain, which might mean to re-master old buildings and words (like a cento) and to be spare, which if not quite minimalist then considers reigning in an unfettered, individualist maximalism (like a gleaning).[xv] This way we could re-imagine the suburbs as something other than “god forsaken” and “ugly” in the poetic imagination, might not have to retreat into a nostalgic lyricism about “nature” or import a discourse of urbanism that is unsuited to a place lacking density.[xvi]

What then of a poetic feature? What of the role of birds in the poem whose contents are the suburbs? As John Kinsella wrote “a parrot isn’t simply a parrot”, so too a bird is not only a bird.[xvii] They bring colour, life, meaning; they connect with nodes of association and reference other poems; they reflect experience; they are ecological as much as political, cultural and social symbols and things-in-themselves.

As Boyd writes, “every Australian is not, of course, a featurist”.[xviii] Indeed, in many poetic works, the pastoral impulse needs to re-assert itself in a suburban tabula rasa of ennui, boredom, soullessness, and ultimately death. Jean Kent’s “In the Hour of Silvered Mullet (Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie)” is a four part reflection on life in the suburbs: “the land of the bland, a stranger might sniff”. But in Kent’s hands this becomes a reflective reverie on nature, people, task, labour, holiday. To take only the first part, where we read of the poet walking the quiet streets at sunset: the speaker is drawn from her home by birds. In the first stanza Kent writes:

It was the tink of king parrots in the native frangipani –

then the white sail-rip past my windows of cockatoos –

sounds of the day on its final tack

which spinnakered me out into this twilight.

Birds here propel the “I” out of the house and into the street for an evening constitutional. They are lively and alive – they “tink” and “rip”, compounding each other through their shared vowel. This contrasts with the suburb, even as they are constitutive of it. The suburbs, which “accost” her at the beginning of her walk are seen as “quarter acre mausoleums, / bungalows mugged by the dinner hour”. Save for a P-plated car that “erupts” with “expletives” that ‘fart then fade, strange as circus elephants’ trapped hoots’, the streets are quiet. People are inside eating while the poet walks “this twilight trail”.

There are specific images – “a Volvo, shiny as a buttered knife, rests beside / its long loaf of house”; “fibro weekenders / not dolled up (yet); new Taj Mahals, curtained with sheets” – but these aid her memory of “inland towns of childhood”. The memory, the thought, is interrupted by currawongs crying, “Come home now! Come home now!” For Kent the currawongs’ voices are “like sunlight on pewter water / dazzling away an entire suburb’s saucepan lids – / just as the bitumen turns a corner and swoops me wrapped in everyone else’s dinner, fragrant as bait”. What then are we to make of the birds here? They offer not only life in the face of the dead, built environment (the tomb of the Taj, the mausoleum), or the inanimate buttered knife, but they also offer us a way for the poet to be led.

If a sailing vocabulary (“sail”, “tack”, “spinnakered”) connoting journey, travel, movement draws her out of domesticity, an allusion to the kitchen (“saucepan lids”) draws her back into the home. Birds then have a position of knowing when to come and when to go; nature knows in some sense. We could deduce from this, especially when read alongside Kent’s other poems in this volume, that there is a desire to regard animals as part of a “group spirit”, a sort of redemptive and knowledgeable way in the world that informs the poet’s memory and subject position. We are in the suburbs, but dead as they are, we might prefer to be in the national park, the field, the ocean.

In “In the Hour of Silvered Mullet (Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie)” birds are the Romantic, pastoral trope that tells us there is life inside the catacomb that is suburbia. We see something similar, namely that the suburb is dead and the bird is active, moving, alive, in Jamie Grant’s “Yacht Harbour – Stillness” (“silence embalms / the suburbs”); S. K. Kelen’s “Saturn” (“suburbs died of fright”); Robert Adamson’s “Drawn With Light” (“suburbs of living dead”); Tim Thorne’s “Advice” (“waste”, “sick”, “cancer”); Henry Lawson’s “Interlude. Next Door” (“a suburb that hasn’t the soul of a louse”); John Kinsella’s “Conspiracy” (bird death), “Exotica at Lake Joondalup” (“empty circulatory systems”) and “Letter to Anthony Lawrence” (“raven garrotes / the suburbs”); Dorothy Porter’s “Gossip” (“death / is a boring smell / in a room / in a suburb”); Alan Gould’s “Kosciusko Essay” (“downward, / deathward”); David Rowbotham’s “The Birds of Berkeley” (“the suburbs of stoned Stephens”); and Ouyang Yu’s “Sex Notice” (“your suburb is too dead”). [xix]

In contrast to this Romantic sensibility, a suburbanite rendering of birds is seen when they are presented as a form of ornamentation within the poem. They are there to add colour, to decorate without recourse to the fact that they are there to be life-giving amidst deadness; that is to say they are “featurist”. This is clearly demonstrated in “O, Kingfisher” by Dorothy Porter.

I’ve heard

your singing.

Every morning

it’s the same

azure kingfisher;

exotic for my suburb

as if

the jungle had

snuck in.

It’s your singing;

stunned, quiet


I’m resigned

to each wild,

rich guise.


as the sky

turns belly-up

you sing.

Porter is aware that the bird is “exotic”, but the reader also apprehends the word “azure”, which in the plain speech of the rest of the poem seems exceptional if not defamiliarising. “Fatigued” works with “resigned” and “guise” – they are words apart but together in their apartness. “Azure” may correlate with “jungle” because of the vowels, but both only compound azure’s separateness. It is the striking, featurist word of the poem. We also get a $64,000 word amid plain speech to describe birds in Gig Ryan’s “Past” (“plangent”) and Thomas W. Shapcott “In the Town” (“melisma”). These are the words I needed a dictionary to understand.

In Porter’s “Scenes from A Marriage I” the suburb itself becomes “swish”, “dangerous”, “glamorous”, “gamey”, “golden”, “exhilarating” because of a bird:

How fantastic are these

familiar suburbs

when the night parrot

is driving my car!

The ovals, the churches,

the school playgrounds

the hardware stores

all swish

like the high skirts

of a Kirchner prostitute;

the seedy glamour

of memory

at its most piercing

where dangerous old perfume

from an old lover’s skin

hangs about

the streets

like a saucy hoodlum

snapping his fingers

smoking an unforgettable cigarette

turning this milk Bar

this boring suburb

into El Dorado

where the streets are gold

at its most gamey

like gory Celtic jewelry –

when the night parrot

is at the wheel

the Top 40

becomes hot ice,

and I throw these burning songs

from hand to hand

with my pulse

ticking like a gaudy grenade;

it’s the jumping blood’s answer

to happiness

the night parrot

drives slowly

to counterpoint

my exhilarated heart’s speed.

Paradoxically, the night parrot, a symbol of nature, mystery, perhaps extinct, brings the suburb into a sort of modernist, urban dangerous realm. As Kinsella writes:

… the parrot becomes an alter ego, a conscience, counter-point, antagonist, most-often indifferent companion, of address. In Porter’s work this is more literal – the bird is a “character” in the internalised dialogue with a shifting persona. … Characteristic of Porter’s poetry in general is the play between the casual, familiar language and a razor-edged intensity. Her night parrot is no mere empty signifier.[xx]

When the night parrot is considered as a counterpoint to Kirchner – a German expressionist painter whose work was considered degenerate under the Nazis and who committed suicide in 1938 – and El Dorado – that searched for golden city in the Americas – we have a complex interaction between country and city, nature and “man”. The suburb though is a flashy thing because of the parrot. If the parrot was not driving the car – symbol of the post-war suburban – one may assume we would not think either of Kirchner or El Dorado. This is a question of the suburb as a consuming, sprawling entity that builds on the featurism of the previously cited Porter poems. Whether she engages critically about the possibility of post-human relations to nature from a Boydian perspective is contestable.

A suburbanist rendering of birds is demonstrated when there is a pleasingly homonymic ambiguity to the interpretation, which is to say that the suburb is not dead and that the bird is not there as an antithesis rendered as life. In other words, birds are part of the suburbs.[xxi] As Boyd writes, “forms and spaces can be a delight in themselves without an observer feeling any needs for features”.[xxii] Nowhere is this clearer than Geoff Page’s “The Birds”:

The birds today

have shifted in on him,

an aviary

about the house.


ride windy branches;


foregather loudly

in the pine trees;

grey sparrows

leap like mice

among the shrubs.

All conspire

against his silence.

The air is birdsong.

He watches them

too much, the way

they prop so fast

above a branch

and drop their claws,

the magpies

strafing the house.

A short campaign.

At night he flaps up

to join them,

takes the new perspective

from a moon-grey gum,

and, feeling

the buoyancy of air

beneath his feathers,

glides off over the suburbs.

Although he may “flap up to join them”, it is a suburb that is run by birds (“an aviary about the house”). He does “glide off over the suburbs”, but we can reflect on whether he will return with these birds. We are unsure whether the person wants to identify with the birds as an escape from the suburbs or whether he simply wants to engage with being about the house. In either case it collapses his humanimality into the Othered position – he becomes them, able to escape. It is not so much about remaining a suburbanite then, but escaping from it in such a way that he allows himself to get deeper into the structure; it is after all “their” home.

This suburbanist ambiguity of separation from and connection to is also evident in Adamson’s “Drum of fire” (“In the park / I flew with rainbow lorikeets / and hung upside down in the branches of flowering coral trees”); Julian Croft’s “Suburbs” (“the boyfriend hurtles past bird-bodied”). There is also a sense in the following poems that the birds are an integral part of a suburb that is living: Philip Salom’s “Planes” (stanza one); S. K. Kelen’s “Creatures”; Rowbotham’s “Coorparoo” (“the cottages are cotes”); Jill Jones’ “April’s Rescue” (“the second nesting since we’ve lived here”; “we adopt their nurturing”); Adam Aitken’s “The Reply” (“like the silence between trees / filling slowly with the songs of birds / you could transcribe as the happiness /of the woman my speech could never keep”); Kinsella’s “Ornithology” (“this refuge in the suburbs”); Douglas Stewart’s “The Dreaming World” (stanza two); Pam Brown’s “Seven Days” (“Home” to “installed for them”); Vivian Smith’s “Early Arrival: Sydney” (stanza one); Katherine Gallagher’s “Entente” (stanza one); Murray’s “Equanimity” (“More natural to look at the birds about the street, their life / that is greedy, pinched, courageous and prudential / as any of these bricked tree mingled miles of settlement”; “bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual”).[xxiii]

We could encourage a Suburbanist, as opposed to suburbanite, aesthetic with regard to birds. If the Romantic and Modernist and the dialectic framed as city-country are all but exhausted, the suburbs have really yet to begin. They have, it seems, being a hybrid form that finds no negation and hence cannot be represented. Indeed, as much space as the rural takes up in the poetic imaginary (the Murrays) and as challengingly urbane as the inheritors of modernism are (the Tranters), Australia is for many a suburban nation. If parrots enter into the work of many poets as “Nature”, which if not uncomplicatedly Romantic at least refers to the real, what are we to expect when the frame is not Bunyah or “the city” but the Western periphery of Sydney? The critical work that need happen is a further interrogation of the modes of address, contents of possibility and recognition of how the suburbs as a lived ecological reality manifest in our writing.


[i] The quotation is from Sasha Grishin, “Bruno Leti’s Collaboration with Chris Wallace-Crabbe”, Imprint 34, no. 4 (1999): 18.

[ii] MartinHarrison, Who Wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia (Sydney: Halstead, 2004), 14.

[iii] Paul, Donegan and Jane-Frances Kelly, City Limits: Why Australia’s Cities are Broken and How We Can Fix Them (Melboure: Melbourne University Press, 2015), x.

[iv] Peter Monacell, “In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs”, Journal of Modern Literature 
35, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 122–42.

[v] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).; Arnold Alanen and Joseph Eden, Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale (Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014).

[vi] Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetics Invention 1796–1945 (London: Palgrave, 2015).

[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness (Melbourne: Text, 2012).

[viii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness,  3. See also, Timothy Youker, “‘The Destiny of Words’: Documentary Theatre, the avant garde and the Politics of Form” (PhD Thesis; Columbia University,  New York, 2012).

[ix] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 19.

[x] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 11.

[xi] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 66.

[xii] See Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”,  (accessed 20 December 2015)

[xiii] For an advocate of sprawl see, Bob Day AO, “The Quality of Sprawl” (The Tom McKenna Memorial Lecture, 31 October 2005),

[xiv] J. M. Coetzee, “The Angry Genius of Les Murray”, New York Review of Books (29 September 2011): “Sprawl is to Murray what loafing is to Whitman: an at-easeness in the world that upsets the tidy minds of schoolteachers and urban planners. ‘Reprimanded and dismissed / sprawl’, ‘listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail / of possibility'”.

[xv] See, for example, the Stelton Colony Commune in New Jersey, an intentional community developed by anarchists in the Modern School Movement in the U.S. in 1915. It is within commuting distance of New York City and many residents retained factory jobs in the city. See also, the Transition Town movement, which was started in the UK and includes some retrofitting of the suburbs. One resource is John Barry, “Resilience, Transition, and Creative Adaptability”, in The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 78–116; Conor Cash, “Decomposition and Suburban Space”, Affinities 4, no. 1 (2010),  . For Australia, see David Holmgren, Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future, Simplicity Institute Report 12i, 2012,

[xvi] See Australian Poetry Library,  the  quotations come from A. D. Hope’s “A Northern Elegy” and Evan Jone’s “Leaving Again”.

[xvii] John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 17.

[xviii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 125.

[xix] See Australian Poetry Library online,

[xx] Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics, 19.

[xxi] This is not to say that the night parrot is not part of Porter’s suburb, but that the focus is on the mundane rather than the mythical, the material rather than the conscious. I would, of course, acknowledge that these categories bleed into each other, that they have crossover and overlap.

[xxii] Boyd, Australian Ugliness, 263.

[xxiii] See Australian Poetry Library online,


Alanen, Arnold and Joseph Eden. Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014.

Australian Poetry Library online,

Barry, John. The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Boyd, Robin. The Australian Ugliness. Melbourne: Text, 2012.

Cash, Conor. “Decomposition and Suburban Space, Affinities 4, no. 1 (2010): 

Coetzee, J. M. “The Angry Genius of Les Murray”, New York Review of Books (29 September, 2011).

Grishin, Sasha. “Bruno Leti’s Collaboration with Chris Wallace-Crabbe”, Imprint 34, no. 4 (1999).

Harrison, Martin, Who wants to Create Australia? Essays on Poetry and Ideas in Contemporary Australia. Sydney: Halstead, 2004.

Holmgren, David. Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future. Simplicity Institute Report 12i, 2012:

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kent, Jean. The Hour of Silvered Mullet. Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2015.

Kinsella, John. Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Moncell, Peter, “In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs”, Journal of Modern Literature 
35, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 122-142.

Porter, Dorothy. Night Parrot. Wentworth Falls: Black Lightning Press, 1984.

Youker, Timothy. “‘The Destiny of Words’: Documentary Theatre, the avant garde and the Politics of Form”. PhD Thesis. New York: Columbia University, 2012.

Published: February 2016
R. D. Wood

is the author of two books, most recently loam-words (Electio Editions, 2016). He is on the faculty of The School of Life and lives in Melbourne.


“In a Sense”: Sonic Phenomena, Temporal Scale and Ecological Encounter in Martin Harrison’s “White-Tailed Deer”

by Kate Fagan

Listen to Martin Harrison

Happiness is not a metaphor. But metaphors keep the memory of happiness. They redirect us – transport us – to instances of feeling that cohere a-chronically into an extended present of joy, an ontological state that can feel curiously outside of time, or at least, dislocated from temporal coordinates. “More and more”, writes Martin Harrison in the poem “Paris” from Happiness, “music brought about the arrival of present time   duhhhh / like the whole ensemble was a weather pattern more intense / than real rain hitting tin”.[1] More intense than real rain. More and more music brought about.

In the weeks following the death of Martin Harrison, I listened over and over to his recorded voice picking its grave, intensely careful way through the superb poem “White-Tailed Deer”.[2] More intense than real rain. I couldn’t stop listening to the poem’s ecological music. I couldn’t check the feeling that somehow, “magnified for a second or two”,[3] I was hearing the poet’s finest rendition of a poetics that embodies a heightened awareness of sonic and auditory phenomena, and that discovers in memory the tender, filament-like traces of perceptual transformations that occur via events of sensing the world as it is. (Grief, like joy, can be temporally arresting and intermittently vain.) “I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth”,[4] writes Harrison. The poem is full of lines that are un-improvable. Pure music, bringing about the arrival of present time, and returning us to transient yet suspended states of ontological affirmation.

When I listen now to Martin Harrison reading “White-Tailed Deer”, I hear in its edges one of his most frequent conversational refrains: in a sense. In a sense, this poem is about apprehension without pre-judgement. In a sense, this poem is about utter contingency alongside utterly inhabited materialisms. In a sense, this poem is about the imaginative capacities and limitations of a human subject when trying to think and feel in scales that are beyond-human. I have always taken “in a sense” to be a metonymic expression of deferral and qualified analogy – this, what I am saying here, is replaceable by and connected to many other possible ways of saying. This is also this and this and that. But in reading “White-Tailed Deer” I have come to understand a different meaning for the phrase, more calibrated philosophically to Harrison’s life-long inquiries into writing and thought, and to his indefatigable explorations of “the poem” as a metaphor for listening to the sense of things.

In “White-Tailed Deer”, Harrison is listening – in a sense ­­– to the arrival of himself into ecology. The experience is “networked, transformative”,[5] strange, intimate, about (and beyond) both metaphor and metonymy. It’s also urgently physical, impelled by desire, and unforgettably happy:

A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.

The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.

An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –

the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –

while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.

And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.[6]

The “intangibility” of distinguishing one sense from another is analogous to a kind of pleasurable, tactile confusion about the phenomenal limits of things and moving objects (including sounds and bodies) when encountered by a perceiving subject. Touch, sight and hearing comingle to generate an immersive field in which senses are, as the poem tells us, “inextricable in feeling and movement and mood”.[7] Harrison relishes the metaphorical flare of “the aurora” as a figure for listening to the late afternoon, or rather, to its resonance; to ordinary, overlooked and habitually overheard soundscapes. The speaker’s experience “takes a serpent’s shape”, but in a gentle overturning of historical connections between “serpentine” metaphors and feminised untrustworthiness, Harrison embraces the facility of poetic metaphor to float us back towards our sensory and absolute selves, and into ontological “ecstasy at merely being here”, via narratives of quantum matter – coded in “wind-brushed molecules”.[8]

As I am writing, a grey shrike-thrush folds its music into the filtered afternoon light outside my window. I hear the song for a while before I recognise that I am hearing it. That is, I hear the sound well before I start listening. The thrush hops into my field of vision under a viburnum that is sprung and whorled with translucent green leaves, early seasonal flags. Now I see the song, see the thrush singing. The indeterminacy of its arrival – its presence in my immediate environment – starts to morph into an abstract, temporally-bound narrative about the bird: when it visits, why it calls, whether it’s nesting, how its call differs from those of dozens of other birds that are darting and zooming through our sun-woken garden. The thrush bobbles across the ivy and back out of sight, but its call remains identified in my sense of things, an asymptote of ecological proximity, recognition and memory.

“Consider the inherent temporality of listening”, muses the New York-based composer and sound theorist Joshua Banks Mailman.[9] He continues:

Sound is ephemeral but its memory is not. Can listening be separated from its memory? Can it be equated with it? The elements of a visual scene may, prior to interpretation, be regarded in a paratactic sense (content without regard to order); one’s memory of a visual scene need not incorporate any sequential ordering information. By contrast, that which we listen to, sound and its content, is presented sequentially; only through interpretation can they be regarded paratactically. It is ephemeral, yet its qualities linger. What we listen to can only be ontologized (recognized as quality, entity, or process) through our memory of it. Listening is in a sense inseparable from its flow.[10]

Mailman further elucidates the “flow” of listening as “the flux of qualities emerging somehow from all events within each span of time, that is, statistically from the totality of the span’s events”.[11].

These observations are from an essay entitled “Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening: DRAMaTIC”, in which Mailman proposes a series of poetic figures for listening – that is, listening conceived as metaphor – in order better to conceptualise what he describes as the “abstractions” of listening.[12] By invoking metaphor, he aims to “maximize listening’s experiential value”,[13] partly by opening the doors between listening and multiple other sensory experiences: touch, digestion, cognitive improvisation, transport to different spaces and temporalities. At the forefront of Mailman’s analysis are complex links between sonic phenomena, memory and time. During a listening experience, argues Mailman, memory works to organise a flow of sequential sound into paratactic narratives, including stories that make sense of ontological happenings. So I am not hearing a round, repeating tumble of incremental shifts in pitch and melody. Rather, I am hearing the song of a grey shrike-thrush, returning with the spring. In remembering this song I am transported to other springs, other gardens, other “thin, gold trees”[14] and contentedly solitary afternoons. Metaphor moves me, that is, into a range of different spatio-temporal scales and ecologies which I inhabit concurrently. Listening to the thrush is metaphorical in both poetical and etymological senses; metaphor still carries its ancient Greek sense of transference, the bearing of something into a meta-space, an order of duration and meaning beyond or transcendent to itself.[15]

Mailman’s metaphors for listening find fascinating resonance when read alongside Martin Harrison’s poems – especially those in which a speaker is depicted crossing a series of sensory thresholds, and switching among perceptual domains in an experiential mode that might be described as polyphonic, polymorphic and even polylingual (as in the “Paris Poems” from Happiness). Here is the first, long stanza of “White-Tailed Deer”:

The small thump from nowhere, someone turning

a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,

a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a

in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty

in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has

flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums

traced on the shed-wall —

    it happens – where? –

closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs

six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?

or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time

from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two

then forgotten just as many thousand times.  Like the thump,

it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event

not really known as an event, one which shifts

the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,

back into shape.  For a moment you understand

startled ecstasy –  it’s a squawky wattlebird landing

(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)

or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,

happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,

how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,

how events change time’s flow beneath perception.

Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on.  You hardly grab a thing.[16]

Keeping in mind Joshua Banks Mailman’s concept of the “flow” of listening as “the flux of qualities emerging somehow from all events within each span of time”,[17] I want to argue that “White-Tailed Deer” knowingly evolves a highly localised poetic form that might be called meta-pastoral.

While “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild” of John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”[18] are not banished entirely from the opening paddock scene of “White-Tailed Deer”, its author is decidedly circumspect about the kinds of binary logics that underpin classically Romantic and Anglo-pastoral “ecstasy” (“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?”).[19] The ubiquitous nightingale is bumped aside for an unclassified “bird song” (“was it that? / or just some other sound”[20]) that is nonetheless distinctly Australian, and whose qualities seem to include vital indeterminacy. Martin Harrison is advancing a poetic mode that is unconstrained by logics of equivalence and one-to-one correspondences which, arguably, are foundational to the metaphoric drive of literary Romanticisms.[21] In doing so, he underscores a lack of “fit” between representative descriptive frames and Australian country. A similar theme is explored in Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy by Stephen Muecke, who deconstructs the proprietorial politics and representative conventions embedded in colonial aesthetics of “landscape”:

Land is not landscape, but the concept of representation allows us the illusion. It does this through habits of perception and memory, as the technologies of convention work up the viewers’ feelings of, for instance, belongingness. Thus can the romanticism learnt from painterly convention subtly mediate the terms of our relationship with our actual surroundings, while other more shocking conventions can defamiliarise such a relationship.[22]

“For a moment” in “White-Tailed Deer”, a bird-like sound is “caught” by the poem’s speaker and tagged as a wattlebird’s song. This however is no Keatsian “plaintive anthem”,[23] and the encountered song remains in flux, “never identified”[24] and resistant to the cognitive disciplines and human containments of representation, parataxis and memory: “it’s a squawky wattlebird landing / (no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)”.[25] Listening and sound remain in flow, as metaphor and poem, “forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event / not really known as an event”.[26] Extending Stephen Muecke’s analysis, we might read this estranging event horizon as an allegory for meeting “our actual surroundings”[27] in ways that are beyond our habitual conceptual frames – a fleeting release from what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky called “the automatism of perception”,[28] echoed above in Muecke’s “habits of perception”. What Muecke calls the “shock” accompanying such shifts is figured twice in “White-Tailed Deer” as a metaphorical “startle”. It is a pause between narrative abstractions and settled meanings, a state of connective flux and hyphen expressed through the poem’s repeated riff on the word “half”: “half-grown”, “half-merged”, “half-heard”, “half-traced”.[29]

Why then hitch Martin Harrison’s defamiliarised scenes of ecological encounter to the clunky term meta-pastoral? Isn’t this just a pastoral mode of observing natural and non-metropolitan habitats,[30] still mediated by frames of romanticism, albeit reworked in a specific local environment – a project notably undertaken in the foundational eco-poetics of Judith Wright? By adopting the prefix and hyphen, I want to signal both continuity and break: a political engagement with the deeper, violent terms of European aesthetic categories that arrived in Australia with colonisation, and a corollary acknowledgement of how those categories are repurposed, hybridised and even feralised in post-settlement Australian poetry. Coming to terms – with place, with poetic modes and forms, and with systematic displacement of Aboriginal culture from country – was critical to the wider project of Harrison, and is a leading conceit for his essay volume Who Wants to Create Australia:

Classifying systems, largely derived from English and American critics and historians, are applied to Australian writing, as if genetic accounts and histories of evolution similar to those of British and Australian writing can be mapped equidistantly across the structures of connection, response and contact which form the local histories of a local art. Borrowed terms like “pastoral”, “urban” and “landscape”, for instance, may work very differently or simply may not work at all when applied to Australian poetry.[31]

Continuity (may work very differently) and break (may not work at all). These are the guiding coordinates of Harrison’s meta-pastoral.[32] “White-Tailed Deer” begins with parataxis via a chain of conjunctions: the small thump, a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise, a neighbour, a trailer, a drum, a paddock, a final sun cube, the shed wall. These figures are both local and imported, heard and seen, phenomenal and epiphenomenal, familiar and strange (as inferred economically in the line “a neighbour – what are they doing out there?”[33]). As Harrison indicates above, his poetic mode is about “structures of connection” (continuity) as much as primary sensory estrangement (break). It pays responsible and tender attention to events that “shift […] / the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see, / back into shape”,[34] as though after a series of alienating breaks ­­­– including those of diverse settlement projects – some cognitive, environmental and cultural repair were needed and possible. Harrison’s project here is mindful of ancientness in the most complex and ontological sense of that word, and continuous with the irrefutably ancient human undertakings of aesthetic labour.

So what are the white-tailed deer doing out there, among the oil drums, sun cubes and parched paddocks? How do they figure in the post-colonial and poly-sensory schemes of this poem, and why does the speaker move suddenly to upstate New York to play out a final scene or two? Or to make Martin Harrison the subject of his own critical question: “Put bluntly, do the last eight lines of [“White-Tailed Deer”] have anything to do with what precedes them?”[35] Embedded in the poem itself is another, strikingly mortal question – “how will it end?”[36] – which Harrison answers this way:

Suddenly you realise

you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –

not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –

but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:

I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,

there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.

I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.

Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.[37]

Here is a clear signal of Harrison’s abiding interest in sonic phenomena as thresholds, bearers of migrations in scale that hum with synaesthetic possibility. White-tailed deer, of course, could transfer us to a range of different ecologies into which that species (native to both American continents) has travelled along the invasive routes of colonial settlement. But transnational symbolism is not the point. Neither entirely are the deer, or even the poem’s nominal destination in “a foreign country” – although to digress slightly, “up-state New York” evokes both Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, a formative figure in genealogies of American eco-poetics whose long lines of plain speaking and sprung polyrhythms are echoed in Martin Harrison’s poem.[38]

The “point” in “White-Tailed Deer” – a metaphorical index rehearsed in the poem – is more akin to the gathering of trans-temporal sense particulars into a pause: suddenly you realise you’re hearing […] a moment’s hesitation. A rare silence, pure sound out of sequence, a split second before the brain decodes sonic information into paratactically sensible narratives. Despite the poem’s title, we know the deer aren’t the point, because overhearing and seeing them are explicitly not the subject of the poem’s sudden realisation. The deer are seen “earlier”, before the speaker steps “outside to get a sense of things”,[39] as though consigned already to memory; and it’s the moment of stepping outside that we witness. “A twig snapped” on “a night-time forest floor”[40] merges in recall with “the small thump from nowhere”[41] that opens the poem only to be forgotten, remembered, and submerged again in a flux of becoming. And the agent or cause of that aesthetically inaugurating sound – which is simultaneously tin, door, trailer, drum, boot slam, shopping bumped against a wall, and eventually “a twig snapped”– is kept ambiguous. It is neither human nor deer, anthropogenic nor natural. It’s possibly both. Harrison’s purpose here is to chart the affective play of ecological encounters upon imaginations and sensory states. He achieves this in “White-Tailed Deer” by recording and re-performing the radical estrangements of facing a natural world that is criss-crossed with human cultural signs, some of them “broken” like the poem’s “stone wall tumbled into bracken”.[42]

The “sense of things”[43] gleaned in Martin Harrison’s poem is fleeting like leaping deer, metaphorical and labile as any listening experience: “Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on. You hardly grab a thing.”[44] But within that “moment’s hesitation”,[45] a way opens towards a deep reconstitution of the human subject as a fundamentally ecological body – both impacting upon, and deeply affected by, encounters with beyond-human entities. Sound is the metaphorical messenger for this perceptual and material reciprocity. It moves the poem beyond the domains of referential language, even if temporarily. When the speaker in “White-Tailed Deer” “steps outside to get a sense of things”,[46] he (or she) is stepping outside the limiting frames of anthropocentricism – paradoxically, still constrained by human frames of phenomenal experience and expression (anthropomorphism), which Harrison acknowledges in the asyndeton “a dinner party, good people, drinks”.[47] Language enables us to make imaginative sense of ecologies that are irreducible to human scales of comprehension, even as it binds our thinking to certain variables. At an earlier point in the poem, “a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought”,[48] as though it is impossible to remain within pre-paratactical spaces of apprehension; “inevitable time” prevails, along with its laws of narrative means. “[A] great ocean” is later depicted “withdraw[ing] into perspective over my shoulder”,[49] suggesting that human aesthetics of representation risk effecting a shrinking of scale – and potentially, a reduction of biodiversity in its broadest sense, rather than an expansion.

There is hope however in the clinamen, the swerve effected metaphorically by the deer leaping a broken wall “in a foreign country”,[50] which is a place more than a nation. One of Martin Harrison’s best contributions as a poet was in conducting poetic language as polyphony (“A hum overtakes the orchestra”[51]) in order to explore the cross-cultural and aesthetic responsibilities and obligations of ecological meetings. In the poem “Poplars” from Happiness, a nexus of agency between person and animal is transacted via a kind of commonality in difference, held in the line: “an extra sense of tranquil animal seeing”.[52] The “startled / white sheep” of “Poplars” are both seeing and seen, watching and being watched. The same careful ambiguities of facing attend Harrison’s group of white-tailed deer. They are deliberately not the subject of “White-Tailed Deer” because Martin Harrison doesn’t want to objectify them, or become them, or command them to jump a certain way. He wants them – somehow intact in themselves, despite and within the provisions of acculturation and language – to point us back towards the real subject of this poem: root relationships between human imaginations, aesthetics, spatio-temporal scales and phenomenal perception.[53]

The urgency of this philosophical scheme is apparent in Harrison’s sudden switch, in the poem’s final four lines, away from steadily applied second person (“for a moment you understand”[54]) and into first person (“I was in up-state New York”[55]). This occurs just as the deer hover into apprehension, and as the borders of self stabilise briefly around the consolations of memory. We are led back not to the deer, but to the pause of a single person recalling them, in a hiatus that is almost indistinguishable from clusters of like pauses in other, remembered places and times. With this device, Harrison veers into a space beyond metaphor and metonym – something like a pre-linguistic or pre-poetical space – and into the nested, ontological frames of memory within memory (I remember myself remembering) that are one of his dearest subjects. The poem becomes a metaphor for listening, just as listening and music become metaphors for the joyous estrangements of renewed, personal feeling – eudaimonia, the happiness of well-being[56] – to which Harrison gives an inseparable ecological aspect.

In a sense that is both ancient and pressingly modern, Martin Harrison makes his poetical focus our human capacity to feel, hear, think and act ourselves into parallel spaces and temporalities, including alternative modes of ecological attention and care. Small, intangible moments of “startled ecstasy”[57] are a telescope to something figured elsewhere in Happiness as “a huge untraceable lightness”,[58] or more simply, “immensity”[59]: an experience of worldly presencing on a vast, non-anthropocentric scale. Those mere seconds are embedded biologically while remaining somehow outside of teleology, “like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil”.[60] They are best observed sidelong or via a disorienting rush akin to vertigo. They are indicators of happiness and future happenstance, felt in a pause between coherent temporal narratives and bright recollections of actuality, “the broken weave / that’s taking us through memories and future senses”.[61] Broken and yet continuous, like a mesh between the repeating breaks of modernity and the potential mends of more ancient, ontological states. Language isn’t the primary site in which Martin Harrison locates this “taking us through” – hence his recurring desire to hesitate just beyond language, even while working inside it. In his poetics, intermingled human senses resist abstraction solely into word.

We are walking through the scrub and ironstone of Flat Top, picking a way back to the dirt road. Our son is ahead of us. Suddenly a large bird startles up from the path with a few flat wing-beats, and alights in a rangy gum just metres to our left. My brain doesn’t compute what I am seeing. A ghost bird, every colour out of place, grey head black mask black eye pale brown tail bars where I should be seeing black head no mask yellow eye white tail bars. Currawong, not currawong. A light brown mirage. Then I realise we are watching a juvenile grey currawong, more furtive and less common than its relative. In the half-second before I reach for language to contain this encounter – grey currawong – I am shocked by what is entirely unfamiliar. I feel wordless, dizzy with non-identification, suspended in the newness of not quite knowing.

I don’t think Martin Harrison was especially interested in pure reason, as though such a thing could be extracted from the world without metaphor. But I think he was deeply interested in something like pure feeling, or more acutely, thinking-as-feeling – an aesthetic and ontological state that might best be expressed as metaphor, to the extent that metaphor can transport us into the intimacies of self-constitution via phenomenal sense. It turns out his conversational asides were, in a sense, super astute. Deferral (a non-absolute) in “White-Tailed Deer” maximises feeling-possibility (an absolute affective horizon) – “affect” ahead of percept or concept, and more likely, imbricated in both.[62] Martin Harrison seemed to understand that sensory correspondences, resonances, hesitations and blurs, rather than categorical separations, might be touchstones for a deeper acknowledgement of our human-creaturely natures – felt via extra-human encounters that “bounce” us, like all good metaphors, out into different spatio-temporal scales and back into the skins of our aesthetic and sensual selves:

wordless day bounces

down the tree’s bare limbs,

through its outspread flamboyance

toward twigs and wattle-birds

while they maraud sticky cream flowers

as if beauty could be instantly

sucked from the world.

Directly. Without irony.[63]

This paper was written originally for presentation at Session 15 of the “Poetics Writing Thought” Colloquium Series at the University of Technology, Sydney. The series was proposed in 2013 by Martin Harrison, together with several of his postgraduate students, as a forum for dialogue about recent and in-progress research, creative and critical work. Session 15 of “Poetics Writing Thought” also included a paper by Astrid Lorange and was held on 8 October 2015 to honour the first anniversary of Martin’s passing.


[1] Harrison, “Paris”, Happiness, 31.

[2] This recording is from the Red Room Company’s author page for Martin Harrison, available online:

[3] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, Happiness, 51.

[4] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[5] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[6] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51–52.

[7] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[8] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52. I am grateful to my colleague Professor Gail Jones for bringing to my attention John Locke’s description of metaphor in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding as feminine, deceitful and “serpentine”. The exact reference has remained bafflingly elusive (consigned permanently, perhaps, to metaphor), and warrants further attention in future readings of Harrison’s poem.

[9] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[10] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[11] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[12] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[13] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[14] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[15] See “metaphor” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

[16] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[17] Mailman, “Seven Metaphors”,

[18] Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”, Complete Poems, 347.

[19] Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”, 348.

[20] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[21] John Hawke’s analysis of Judith Wright’s early interest in Charles Baudelaire’s “theory of correspondences” reads Wright’s essay “From Romanticism to Symbolism” as a formative instance of a modernist Australian “re-purposing” of key metaphorical tenets of Romantic and Symbolist poetics as a vehicle for understanding relationships between human subjects and natural worlds; see Hawke, “The Moving Image: Judith Wright’s Symbolist Language”, 160–61. Martin Harrison addresses this legacy in “Modernity: Five Fragments” from Who Wants to Create Australia?, writing: “the sub-poetry of Australians is identified in a loosely symbolist, in many respects early or proto-modernist poetry of reminiscence and topography” (74).

[22] Muecke, Ancient & Modern, 76. Stephen Muecke’s “Landscape and Country” from Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy (71–79) makes for illuminating reading alongside Martin Harrison’s “Land and Theory” from Who Wants to Create Australia? (25–36).

[23] Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”, 348.

[24] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[25] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”,  51.

[26] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”,  51.

[27] Muecke, Ancient & Modern, 76, my emphasis.

[28] Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, 27.

[29] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51–52.

[30] I am indebted to Dr Peter Minter for this provocation.

[31] Harrison, Who Wants to Create Australia?, 78–79.

[32] The terms of aesthetic engagement here are distinct from, but arguably related to, the “anti-pastoral” poetics advanced in the writings and poetry of John Kinsella; see for example Kinsella’s essay “Can there be a radical ‘Western’ pastoral?”.

[33] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[34] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[35] This is of course Martin Harrison talking about the clinamen in A. D. Hope’s poem “Australia”, and the apparent disconnect between that poem’s first five and last two stanzas; see Harrison, Who Wants to Create Australia?, 28.

[36] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[37] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[38] Whitman’s lyric “Mannahatta” (Leaves of Grass, 360–61) is remarkable for its complex engagement with narratives of colonial settlement and urban ecologies, while poems like “Song of the Redwood Tree” perform a radical reworking of pastoral traditions in order to “voice” the ontological status of a sentient, natural ecology: “For know I bear the soul befitting me, I too have consciousness, / identity, / And all the rocks and mountains have, and all the earth” (Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 166; italics included).

[39] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[40] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[41] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[42] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[43] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[44] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[45] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[46] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[47] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[48] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[49] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[50] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[51] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[52] Harrison, “Poplars”, Happiness, 16.

[53] Martin Harrison’s “house in the woods” in “White-Tailed Deer” is somewhat analogous to Martin Heidegger’s metaphorical “clearing” as amplified in “The Origin of the Work of Art” from Poetry, Language, Thought: “In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting […] Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are” (51). Heidegger likened such an “open place” to an illuminated clearing in a forest or wood. In teaching and conversations, Martin Harrison returned frequently to the influence and implications of Heidegger’s thinking about phenomenal poetics, even as he acknowledged the indefensible failings of Heidegger’s positions on race and ethnicity. In this essay, I have stepped away from that vexed philosophical conversation to anchor my thinking in the more literal and material ecologies of “White-Tailed Deer”, and have chosen not to read the MH/MH dialogue; but it demands acknowledgement. In a related fashion, Thoreau’s Walden describes an archetypal “house in the woods” as a clearing or site from which to contemplate being-in-nature: “My house was on the side of a hill, immediately on the edge of the larger wood, in the midst of a young forest of pitch-pines and hickories […] As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing” (Thoreau, Walden, 80–81).

[54] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[55] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 52.

[56] Lyn Hejinian in “Some Notes toward a Poetics” explores two senses of the Greek term eudaimonia, citing Hannah Arendt’s philosophical investigations of the word: “eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness […] is what the Greeks called the sheer bliss of simply being alive”; and secondly, in its etymological sense, “[e]udaimonia literally means to be ‘with a demon’”. Hejinian interprets this “demon” as a pressing sense of future occurrence or possibility that accompanies any human sense of present happiness (or happenstance). Both slants of the word are embodied in Martin Harrison’s astute title Happiness – the book reflects upon love and mortality in ways that are both joyfully present and tragically prescient.

[57] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[58] Harrison, “Watching How A Rain Front Stops”, Happiness, 50.

[59] Harrison, “By the River”, Happiness, 47.

[60] Harrison, “White-Tailed Deer”, 51.

[61] Harrison, “Poplars”, 17.

[62] I am thinking here of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s discourse on “Percept, Affect, and Concept” in What is Philosophy?, 163–99.

[63] Harrison, “Patio”, Happiness, 13.


Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson. London and New York: Verso, 1994.

Harrison, Martin. Who Wants to Create Australia?. Broadway, NSW: Halstead Press, 2007.

Harrison, Martin. “White-Tailed Deer.” Performed by Martin Harrison, audio recording, 3 min., 40 sec., accessed online 29 September 2015:

Harrison, Martin. Happiness. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2015.

Hawke, John. Australian Literature and the Symbolist Movement. Wollongong: University of Wollongong Press, 2008.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter (1971). Perennial Classics edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Hejinian, Lyn. “Some Notes toward a Poetics.” In American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, 235–41 and 256–57. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University   Press, 2002.

Keats, John. The Complete Poems, edited by John Barnard. 3rd edition. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Kinsella, John. “Can there be a radical ‘Western’ pastoral?” Literary Review 48, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 120–33.

Mailman, Joshua Banks. “Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening: DRAMaTIC.” Journal of Sonic Studies 2, no. 1 (May 2012), accessed online 29 September 2015:

Muecke, Stephen. Ancient & Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy. Randwick, NSW: University of NSW Press, 2004.

Oxford English Dictionary, accessed online 29 September 2015:

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” In Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, edited by David Lodge, 15–30. London and New York: Longman, 1985.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden or, Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Signet Classic edition. Afterword by Perry Miller. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1980.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. World’s Classics edition, edited by Jerome Loving. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Published: November 2015
Kate Fagan

is a poet, musician and academic who lectures in Literary Studies within the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. Her most recent volume of poems First Light (Giramondo 2012) was short-listed for both the Age Book of the Year Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She is a former editor-in-chief of How2, the U.S.-based journal of contemporary and modernist innovative poetry and poetics scholarship. She is well known across Australia and the U.K. as a folk-roots songwriter, and her album Diamond Wheel won the National Film and Sound Archive Award for Folk Recording.


Nature and Antiquity in the Work of Martin Harrison

by Berndt Sellheim

For I have learned

To look on Nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity…[1]

In a letter responding to the death of poet and natural historian Eric Rolls, Martin Harrison notes in Rolls’ work an awareness of the “two great presences, Nature and Antiquity”.[2] The terms of these two presences, which Harrison acquires from Wordsworth, he goes on to nuance as “the claims of nature and the claims of ancient understanding”.[3] Implicit in Harrison’s statement is that he himself shares such an awareness, or a version of it, and with a contribution that is now underlined by the finality of his death in September 2014, the ways in which these two presences are pillars in Harrison’s own writing become only more apparent. In his essays, and during appearances at seminars and readings, he would return to these subjects again and again. In his poetry, the phenomena and interplays of the natural and cultural worlds provide much of the immediate subject matter and many narrative surfaces. These poems move fluidly through human and animal worlds, taking to the winged byways of small birds and various forms of insect life, to marsupial dens and snake hollows. The place of ancientness is also rooted in these textures of anecdote and narrative, as well as within the extensive reach we find in the poems’ varying engagements with, and departures from, inherited poetic structures.

Ancient understanding is a broad church in Harrison’s work. His writing seeks a dialogue with Australia’s Indigenous inheritance, just as it opens toward the philosophies of East and West, through ideas and creative forms that stretch into the literate memory of antiquity. It recognises the ancient cultures of Britain just as it acknowledges the presences of Indigenous people who were, up until almost two centuries back, the custodians of the land on which Harrison’s house in Wollombi, “Shantipur”, was built. In “Country and How to Get There”, he notes the relatively early arrival of graziers into this area, in the 1820s, noting also the extent of carvings and rock paintings there, a fact that testifies to significant aboriginal habitation prior to what was no doubt a traumatic and bloody act of “dispersal”. He also draws our attention to the European traces one finds in Wollombi. History is not a single line that drops plumb through the years, but the endless sedimentations of successive moments, each of which maintains some claim on how the present is manifest, but all of them integrated, subtle; reliant, if we are to recognise them, on our ways of looking.

The place where I am writing this essay, for instance, appears at first sight to be a place in nature, in the wilderness, in the bush. Once you know about it, however, you do not forget how several hundred metres away is that fence-line of one of surveyor Mitchell’s early 19th Century projects, the Great North Road. […] The truth is that the appearance of the land here has been utterly transformed by clearance, by farming, by regrowth, by abandoned house sites, by floods. […] Even Aboriginal historical presence can no longer by itself identify the full shape of the remembering here, no matter how much Aboriginal absence creates the play of terms, the dimensions of feeling, the endless repeatings and no less regular memory failures which build the deepest context by which this place is a place.[4]

This model of ancient presence, in which the most visible shapings of the land are seen as a part of its “memory”, but do not determine the deepest contexts by which a “place is a place”, echoes interestingly amongst Wordsworth’s Lakes District druidic stones. In an interview in Cordite with Adam Aitkin from 1997, Harrison comments that “in this country you have got to have a many-levelled sense of place […] They do have multiple histories – they have Aboriginal histories, early settler histories, contemporary histories and so on. You’ve somehow got to keep those sides of things together.”[5] This capacity to remain open to the palpable presences of the land is therefore in part a mode of attunement, an openness to this many-levelled way in which a place might be understood.

The degree to which the terminology that Harrison is deploying in the Watermark letter may or may not line up with Wordsworth’s is also interesting. Harrison was familiar with the Lakes District, that mountainous region of mirrored lakes with which Wordsworth’s work will ever be associated. As natives of Britain, and both “Cambridge men”, for whatever that’s worth, the area’s celebrated fells form part of their mutual conception of what “the natural world” is composed of, are part of the strata from which contemporary western ideas of “nature” draw their meaning – a meaning for which Wordsworth is, in some part, responsible. Although the term “nature” was not contested in Wordsworth’s day, as it might be within some present-day discourses, Harrison shows little interest here in worrying over whether we can refer to something like “nature” in a straightforward, uncritical way.

The idea of “ancient understanding” might strike us as somewhat esoteric, and, in Harrison’s case, it carries with it an explicit recognition of Indigenous cultures and their relation to colonised lands that it does not carry in Wordsworth. Yet at the same time, the emphasis the 19th Century poet places on conservation, on the forgetting and subsequent obliteration of the exquisite traces of land’s prior inhabitants, sees more confluence in understanding than we might otherwise expect. The marks wrought first by the druids, and then by the history of agriculture (mostly sheep farming) and quarrying also give The Lakes some of the specific traits of wildness marked by industry that Harrison draws our attention to in Wollombi. Harrison’s “ancientness”, then, carries much of that emphasis of historical trace and continuance that is to be found in Wordsworth. The Lake’s District essay follows ancient paths and architectures, highlighting the interlacing of the natural world with the artefacts of culture, artefacts which offer some trace of the ancient within that emerging modernity inhabited by the 19th Century romantic poet:

corn-ground intersected with stone walls apparently innumerable, like a large piece of lawless patch-work, or an array of mathematical figures, such as in the ancient schools of geometry might have been sportively and fantastically traced out upon sand […] rude stones attributed to the Druids, are the only vestiges that remain upon the surface of the country, of these ancient occupants.[6]

The parallels that Wordsworth draws between landscape and concept systems like geometry also find echo in Harrison’s work, as does the locating of structures of meaning within a natural environment that may or may not be shaped by human habitation. Wordsworth writes of the need to secure “scenes so consecrated from profanation”,[7] and in the Watermark letter, which was, it’s worth noting, composed during a visit to the Wordsworth Centre at the University of Lancaster, Harrison comments on the enormous contribution Wordsworth made to the cause of conservation. “One of things I have been doing”, he writes, “is looking at the way in which Wordsworth’s poetry made major – arguably the major – contribution to the preservation of this extraordinarily beautiful area of the north of England. Yes, writers and poets sometimes can win the long term battles to protect the environment.”[8]

A characteristic of 19th Century romanticism is the transformation it offers the concept of “nature”: pushing back against the scientism of Enlightenment thought, romantic poets such as Wordsworth present nature as redemptive and spiritual, possessing an intrinsic value of its own. One aspect of the romantic ideal that lies at the heart of this transformation is the more conscious integration of the human sphere with the natural: and so Wordsworth learns to hear in nature the “still, sad music of humanity”. The nature / culture parallel that Wordsworth (and, for that matter, Harrison) deploys in his work both enacts and demonstrates such enhanced integration. It seems difficult to overestimate the importance of this change. Isaiah Berlin describes romanticism as “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to be in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it”.[9] With this in mind, the power of Wordsworth’s contribution, more than its argument for the conservation of the Lakes District per se, is found in the way that our view of such land is transformed by the poet’s sight. I think we can position Harrison’s work within this continuum of transformation. In making this claim, it’s obvious enough that I’m not ghettoising his work within an antiquated aesthetic or conceptual network: the rethinking of “nature” that opens with romanticism continues to evolve, and Harrison’s contribution does not repeat a 19th Century emphasis, but extends a line of inquiry that the romantics initiated, incorporating as it does contemporary insights that span many disciplines, including philosophies of language, phenomenology and poetics.

In Harrison’s poetry and critical work, the interrelations of ancientness and nature are coupled with a reflection on, and foregrounding of, the phenomenological immersion that is our meeting point with such presences. Extending from this is an inquiry into the meaning of that moment of reflection – the nature of this “mind” that reflects. The sensory and extra-sensory boundaries of this engagement are the boundaries and playthings of Harrison’s poetics, boundaries that are equally alive and responsive to the objects and pressures that characterise contemporary modernity as they are to the minutiae of our engagement with the natural world. They are also its ground, its foundation, for what we find in Harrison’s poetry is not transcendentalism, an othering of nature by which its spiritual elevation gives it the radiance of a world outside or beyond our own. Rather, such radiance (and the natural world is indeed radiant as it is evoked in Harrison’s work) is derived from its insistent sensuality. What is evoked is not a sphere beyond, but our sphere – richer, fuller, more meaning-laden than is often recognised.[10]

In the poem “Red Marine”, for instance, I am struck by the feeling that Harrison is speaking back to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”,[11] a poem he was immensely fond of, and that Harrison’s abrupt opening directive, “The meaning of that moment must be found”, follows on from Stevens’ poem, sets about addressing the question which Stevens directs to the mysterious Ramon Fernandez. Yet where Stevens’ “inhuman” “plungings of water and the wind” are a singing that goes “beyond the genius of the sea”, from a singer for whom “there never was a world … / Except the one she sang, and singing, made”, for Harrison it is the red hinge of a baffled sail that directs and pins meaning to the sensory moment, to its locale. The “meaning of the moment” may remain outside conceptual structuring, open-ended, yet it is decidedly of that place, of the body that is its witness: it is the physical world that lies beyond the maps we might make of it. The task, therefore, as Harrison sets it out, is not to look beyond the world, but to look more closely at the world we inhabit. It is the corporeal fact of that world, the self-generation of its trees and grasses, the physical traces of those who have come before, perhaps the interaction of buoyancy, wind and sail, which reveal to us the meanings toward which Harrison is gesturing, meanings that are no less palpable within everyday experience for their irreducibility.

There is such delicate precision in the way that Harrison describes not only the various phenomena of the natural world, but also its edges, its histories, the inexplicable, the almost explicable, the perhaps explicable. The “claims of nature” are audible within such phenomena, but we need to search them out, to look and to listen, in order to be open to that “many levelled” sense of place they are located within. In the poem “Roads”, also from The Distribution of Voice, he writes:

Against the primitives of snowing,

Against nothing,

Colour, sound, smell, are all

A kind of sloganeering,

Unless there is a way to find

A further depth,

That high-pitched note within the wiry wind,

That cloud-shadow motion on earth close-up, on distant


Although his work seeks this “further depth”, it is a depth that remains within the “wiry wind”. In this way, Harrison constantly brings his poems back to the sensory, back to the real, back to the concrete fact of country, with its creatures and plant life, its weather, and those material tracings of ancient presence.

The role of language in such an act of attunement and response is vital. In his essay “Country and How to Get There”, Harrison interrogates the local significance of the term “country”, noting how, with the absence of the definite article, its divergence from British and European notions of “the country”, which are “more apposite to a 19th century novelist like Turgenev”, are foregrounded. The word then carries the “technical, intimate and surprisingly mystical”[13] emphasis of the Australian lexicon, an emphasis that is derived, in part, from “the influence of Aboriginal land practices and Aboriginal ancestral sensor of custodianship”.[14] Such an influence, Harrison notes, is “often underacknowledged”. He continues:

he word’s use oscillates all the way between how an Indigenous Australian might use it to describe where he or she comes from through to the self consciously academic adoption of the term as a tool to shift perception of ownership, care and environment within the larger geopolitical terrain of national life and ideas. “Country” is a word which upsets the neat overlaps of meaning in terms like “land”, “property”, “farm”, “home”, “district”, “landscape”, separating these meanings out from each other and stressing how each brings with it its own slant of non-Indigenous colonial history.[15]

Ancient understanding might come down to us, then, not only in the material tracings of ancient cultures within a landscape, but in the adoptions of those cultures’ modes of understanding within contemporary discourse. “To understand the connectedness of human presence across time goes to the heart of that matter of how the words ‘country’ and ‘land’ and ‘countryside’ connect up.”[16] The degree to which we hear the claims of ancient understanding is therefore partly dependent on our linguistic sensitivities.

Although there is a strong emphasis on locale in Harrison’s work, there is also a keen attunement to the histories that contemporary poetry intersects with. Such histories extend well beyond the English romantics: in Harrison’s conception, poetry is an art that traverses literary pathways that wind back through ancient Sumerian verse, that might be open to the song cycles passed down through countless generations of Indigenous Australians, to the histories imbedded in ancient Greek literary forms, through Indian and Chinese poetics, through a multiplicity of voices of celebration, oppression and exchange, some bloody and some sweet. Harrison felt, I think, that part of the poet’s task is a vital positioning of him or her self within this historical flow, contributing to it, steering it, redefining it. One key aspect here is the way that the past constructs our modes of engagement with the present: the structures of how we look at and interpret the world, how we write, and even how we think, are the inheritances of culture. In the 1997 Cordite interview, Harrison comments that “the classic Horatian definition of pictoria poesis has to be rethought from generation to generation”.[17] One part of this process of rethinking is poetry’s adaptation to the geo-cultural conditions of place, its endless series of responses to the present that are necessarily responses to the past. One way to frame the present is as the fecund accumulations of history, all that has come before, laid out before us in this moment of perception. Within this framework, “the claims of nature and the claims of ancient understanding” are vital, even unavoidable, aspects of our phenomenological engagement.

Such rememberings of country are not of some transcendental ether, the spectral mists that might remain of a spirit realm after its adherents have been driven off or butchered. They are present in the living memories of the land’s inhabitants, as paintings, carvings, the altered landscape; the corporeal extensions of a body of thought that are still present in the land, if only we look in the right way, if only we are open, and in some cases authorised, to see them. Yet, as in “Red Marine”, one element that makes Harrison’s work unique is the ways in which such materiality directs us toward the interstices, opening across multiple dimensions, and toward those unnamed aspects of country that “make it what it is”: that which may lie outside our usual ways of looking and interpreting the material world, but which has a presence within that world, should our ways of looking be up to the task. Harrison’s poetry seeks to keep us looking, to maintain that sense of place where one trace of the past is not understood to cancel out another. He sought to break down tired dualisms, to bring things into relation, rather than opposition, so that these different elements might be seen concurrently. “What’s your sense of writing the Australian landscape as a certain unravelling of myths rather than a reinforcement of, say, the country-city divide?,” Adam Aitkin asks him in 1997. Harrison responds: “That dialectic has worn itself out.”[18]

In Harrison’s poems, we frequently read rapid shifts back and forth between descriptions of the “natural” world and the “cultural”, with the structures of organisms and formations of weather juxtaposed with the duco of a ute, or a pool’s chlorine. Interstices are emphasised, expanded, given life; those spaces that are always, ever between, but are opened out by branches, by twigs, and then overlaid with those of that most specific and vital of cultural creations, language. In “Leaving Tasmania” he writes

I think of space between two twigs

Caught there as nothing, touched

By contexts, delicate to fix.

Again we are drawn to spaces that are yet to be, perhaps never can be, made into places; contextual, delicate, their linguistic and extra-linguistic elements playing in and out of their physical properties and presences. In “Letter from America” in the volume Summer, Harrison writes of “how things sing between themselves and their names”,[19] emphasising the linguistic mode or aspect of such potential interstices. There is an echo here of the interpretation that 20th Century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a thinker whose work Harrison read closely, gives of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In the essay “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, Merleau-Ponty argues the Saussurean diacritical theory of the sign – that the sign’s meaning is not found in correspondence of signifier with signified, but rather with its divergence from other signs – sees meaning arrive only at the “edge of signs”; for Merleau-Ponty this implies an “immanence of the whole in the parts”, a phenomenon, we are told, which “is found throughout the history of culture”.[20] Thus for Merleau-Ponty, Saussure does not prefigure the potential groundlessness of language that will be emphasised as his work is taken up by later post-structural theorists, but rather an “opaqueness”, in which such instability permits the sign to be conceived of as opening both to a world that is in itself meaningful, and toward other signs. Harrison’s linguistic interstices too are not origins of semantic failure, but are suggestive of greater possibility, of the meaning-rich spaces in which new meanings might come into being, or the physical spaces that fall outside our attention. In Harrison’s much-read poem “A Word”, the arbitrariness of a bird’s appearance, the contingency by which one thing or another might appear before us, is played against a corresponding linguistic instability. The poem remains marvellously open-ended, and might even be read as an insistence on Derridean différance, but the Merleau-Pontian reading seems more fitting when the poem is considered as a part of the larger whole of Harrison’s work, of these movements between the natural world and these interstitial spaces that Harrison returns to again and again. In this way, language retains the capacity for new acts of naming, with the interstices of the physical world mirroring, speaking back, to the linguistic.

This openness finds formal expression in the chapbook Music, Prose and Poems, in which Harrison rapidly shuffles narratives and formal arrangements, evoking a sense of meanings and poems coming into being on the page. Music offers something of a departure from the more rigorously formed lines of Summer and The Kangaroo Farm, with sections of prose interspersed with a variety of textual arrangements, fragments of poems, single lines, broken lines, couplets, and tercets, at times breaking off abruptly, as if mid-thought, at others offering several paragraphs of essayistic explorations in which the temporal, lived moment of the senses is both subject and point of inquiry. As Stuart Cooke notes, one of the striking aspects of the writing in Music is the way that, although it appears on the surface as a radical departure from the more rigid formal structures of Summer, on closer reading we see it as a continuance of the thematic and stylistic concerns of Harrison’s earlier writing, building on that work, extending it, offering what Cooke describes as a “sensual, subjective understanding of perception”.[21]

Such sensuality, as a response to the material, local, sensory world, can also be conceived of as a bridge between cultures, a place where we might join in mutual recognition and difference. Just as it is our physicality – a need for shelter, a love of food, the desires of skin – that frequently act to unite us with cultures and peoples that, on the surface at least, appear vastly different from those we are accustomed to, such cultural differences, even barriers of language, frequently melt away when engaging the concrete stuff of our physical, sensory beings: acts of love or the baking of bread. This is not to say that cultural and mythological reference points disappear in the face of the natural world – I am thinking particularly here of the overlap of subjective, mythic and geological structures in Indigenous belief systems[22] – but that despite these varying reference points, our phenomenological immersion in the natural world, our reliance on it, our sensitivities to it, reveal our commonalities also.

Taking the historical in a more general sense, Harrison frequently spoke of poetry as a long game, seeing cultural memory in terms of what work would remain, what would be remembered, after fifty years or perhaps a century had past. Just as he remarked in the Watermark letter, he emphasised elsewhere that what comes down to us, what we inherit, is in part what we choose to fight for. In “Winter Solstice” he writes of

the Coldor black mercury fountain made for the Republic’s


it would have been lost in time – all the energy to maintain,

restore, re-build, quite lost –

had someone not thought to reinstall it, tracing its flowing vortex back

through those years of war.[23]

Literature, for Harrison, is always a conversation with history, even if that conversation exists not within the subject matter, but only within the textures of the work – the way a contemporary ode might speak back to Homer, for instance, or a contemporary fragment might echo what comes down to us of Sappho: a poem’s language, its formal arrangements, even its apparent rejection of such forms. Yet the kind of awareness that Harrison adopts from Wordsworth and emphasises in the work of Rolls is to do with an explicit presencing of nature and ancientness that obviously extends deeper than a nod of recognition toward moments of shared literary inheritance. Rather, as with Wordsworth, there is an ethical imperative that originates from our sensory engagement, our openness to what it has to say about not only the present, but also the past, which is to emphasise that what nature and ancient understanding confront us with is not merely their presence, but their claims. And on some occasions, we must fight for such claims to be recognised.

Our ways of seeing, hearing and understanding are neither neutral nor natural; this is a principle objection to the argument for a phenomenological reduction that might take us back to “raw” ontological experience, back to the primordial soup. Harrison does not articulate an openness on an idealised, unmediated primordial. Nature resists an act of translation, and we remain built from the cultural world, from a world that has taught us, via our interactions with it, the act of interpretation: that world which we build with our words, with our cars and air-conditioners. Merleau-Ponty states that “tout est fabriqué et tout est naturel chez l’homme”.[24] This interplay, between what is natural and what is “fabricated” or human-made, between nature and culture, is ever present in Harrison’s work. As human beings, our engagement with technology, from the earliest use of sticks, shaped stone flint, through to fibre-optics and the internet, is an essential facet of our being. It informs our modes of sensing, guides our being-in-the-world. In the poem “Lizards”, Harrison interrogates a moment of sensory awareness, and this reciprocity is taken up as the poem’s central concern.

But what occurs

Is complex here, because

The man is cut by what he is,

By where he looks – as if a camera

Shoots his view. His thoughts

Are filled with news,

Traces, the quivering

Things which build these running forms

Into a tenuous net

Of lit-up words. Once more, lizards dart

Upon dark skin

And pattern what the world will say:

Now he is thinking

Of space like a

Hand-held shield, mobile with stars

And stony tracks. Now, of them.[25]

It is interesting here that “[t]he man here is cut by what he is, / By where he looks”, that our attention is drawn to the overlap of a historical, cultural, formed self, and the sensory opening that is itself trained into contemporary modes of seeing: “as if by camera”. Such “training” is not only the news, the “facts” of our world, but the structures by which we interpret the present. It is telling that within this characteristic shift, between the natural world and the constructions of culture, there arises the issue of mediation. The meditation on mind that lies as a central element of Harrison’s poetics is here to do specifically with the nature / culture nexus.

It is worth emphasising that, for Harrison, this question of mediation does not reduce the human subject to a cultural construct, built of online and televisual perceptual channels, of partisan media and city traffic, with, perhaps, England’s rolling hills, or the dust-dry heat of Eucalypt bush in the blasting Australian summer, in there, somewhere, about the edges. Such forces play a part in how we interpret and respond to what we perceive, yet guiding multitudinous layerings of perception are the choices we make in how we look, how we may or may not open our senses to what is around us. For although there may be no neutral way of seeing, there are many ways of looking, of responding to the varying aspects of the spaces we inhabit with our perceptual, and conceptual, apparatus. Within this question of mediation there is also a promise: the promise that poetry might make a difference.

In the poem “Lizards”, the key is found in the poem’s curt final line: that the observer shifts his awareness without shifting his gaze, moving from language’s “tenuous net” to space itself, and then to “them” – a contemplation of the things as they are presented to the senses. Humans are complex; language is complex; the formation of thought is complex; what makes them possible is this capacity for movement, from the news into stars and stony tracks, into their interstices, then back. The complexity of this relationship is a clear point of fascination for Harrison, and much of his late critical work is concerned with thinking through a model of language and meaning into which such complexity might be integrated, a model that does not hit the potential dead ends that emerge when meaning is seen as principally textual. In his doctoral thesis “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”, Harrison moves “through to an engagement with non-classical views of writing (such as Derrida’s) as well as into theories of writing linked to cognitive and phenomenological views of meaning”.[26] This emphasis on cognitivist and phenomenological accounts of meaning is worth emphasising, for it signposts Harrison’s formulation of meaning as an ongoing act of cognition and sensory immersion. Although there may not be an exclusively raw primordial state, which we might mine for such ontological secrets as we can unearth, neither do we merely see what we are “trained to see”, or think and speak only within a field of predetermined lexical structures. There is more here than mediation, more to it than the constructions of culture, the trained camera of the eye. As he puts it in “Red Marine”, our sensory opening upon the world can, at times, be “More total, more for the body than the eye”. The sensing body, embedded within the world, is an active participant in meaning’s formation, and that body’s attunement is in part a question of its reciprocal exchange with cultural objects like poems.

This complexity, our many ways of seeing and looking, only underlines the ethical dimension of our sensory openness: the television we watch, the music we listen to, the poems and novels we read, all these things guide our awareness, our sensitivities to the world around us. Poets can sometimes win their battles to preserve the environment, and perhaps they influence more outcomes than they know. Because the poet’s work helps to determine the act of interpretation: how we look at the world, and, ultimately, how we respond to it. In recasting our attention to the endless flow of lives about us, to the memories and knowledges that connect cultures to places, Harrison’s work inscribes our sensory modalities with an ethical imperative. Harrison avoided prescriptiveness, avoided reduction, so I see the kind of ethics that we might extract from his work here as “merely” to do with connection, with honing our attention to the presences, to the claims, which surround us.

I would like to close by offering a few personal, somewhat tangential, remarks. Martin Harrison commences the collection Summer with a Greek citation, which he identifies as fragment 119 from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.[27]  Harrison records this fragment as follows: … ειναι γαρ χαι ενταυθα θεους … Curiously enough, however, Fragment 119 from Heraclitus is generally accepted as being: ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. The fragment Harrison cites in fact comes to us via Aristotle, and, more significantly, via the German metaphysician Martin Heidegger. In “The Letter on Humanism”,[28] Heidegger sets out to respond to a series of questions put to him by Jean Beaufret, which address, amongst other things, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. In his response, Heidegger diagnoses both Sartrean existentialism and humanism as stuck within metaphysical thought, which is, for Heidegger, a historical formalisation (and thus not “true” thinking) that has led to the “homelessness” of humankind and the forgetting of the question of Being. In Heidegger’s conception, metaphysical thought leads to an understanding of nature as a resource under the dominion of humankind.[29] One other relevant point of critique here is Heidegger’s dismissal of Sartrean atheism, which he offers not to assert a Christian godhead, but, put simply, to keep a space open for “the holy”: “in the name ‘being-in-the-world’, ‘world’ does not in any way imply earthly as opposed to heavenly being, nor the ‘worldly’ as opposed to the ‘spiritual'”.[30] It is the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin who Heidegger identifies as addressing this “homelessness”, transcending both humanism and metaphysics with his non-metaphysical poetry. Heidegger notes the usual translation of ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων as a “man’s character is his diamon [/fate]”, but, he goes on: “This translation thinks in a modem way, not a Greek one. ἦθος means abode, dwelling place. The word names the open region in which the human being dwells.”[31] Heidegger goes on to cite Aristotle, who offers the account of Heraclitus we find excerpted in Summer.

The story is told of something Heraclitus said to some strangers who wanted to come visit him. Having arrived, they saw him warming himself at a stove. Surprised, they stood there in consternation – above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called to them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.”

With this epigraph, then, Harrison directs us not only to the famously cryptic pre-Socratic, but to at least three further names: to Aristotle, and more significantly, to Heidegger. Through Heidegger, we are directed to Hölderlin. For Heidegger, Hölderlin offers the chance of non-calculative engagement with the natural world (and, for that matter, humankind),[32] and Harrison is here drawing our attention to a mode of poetic sensuality that can be seen as an opening upon, a possibility, rather than merely an aesthetic endpoint. There is a more technical discussion to be had concerning the ways in which Harrison’s ecology and phenomenological attentiveness may and may not fit with the ontological conception of dwelling we find in Heidegger, with its quasi-theological fourfold of earth, sky, divinities and mortals, but this is not the place for it. Suffice it to note that Heidegger’s foregrounding of the historical aspect of our thinking has many resonances in Harrison’s work, and Harrison’s choice of epigraph articulates a recurrent theme: the presence of what we might think of as “holy” within life’s everyday pleasures. Heraclitus words locate us in rich philosophical soil, but they also get us into the dirt, into the everyday stuff of being alive. It is into these pleasures that Harrison’s poetry constantly draws us, reshaping our modes of feeling, probing the nature of the sensory act, drawing the eye beyond what is expected. Even if we find Heidegger’s claim to do with metaphysical thinking overemphatic, his emphasis on poetry’s capacity for the creation of new meaning, its enabling new ways of looking and reconfiguring the terms by which the world is understood, continues to be valuable, and Harrison certainly found it so.

The “too” in Heraclitus’ fragment is also telling, for it emphasises not a denial of the spiritual realm, a reduction of “what there is” to what is measurable, but rather an opening out of transcendental possibility from the everyday. In the days that followed Harrison’s death, as we discussed the appropriate extent and nature of religious ritual in the funeral service, Sydney poet Nick Keys mentioned that Harrison had once said to him, emphatically: “I’m not a materialist. Things are not just what they are. That’s too simple.”[33] And Harrison did leave space for the transcendent within his work. The sense of a shimmering beyond is at the edge of every word: “Anyone up this early – it’s just after dawn – is going to be overwhelmed by the glimmering of things” he writes in a poem with that most quotidian of titles, “Breakfast”. But as he goes on, we see such shimmering draws from the physical universe, as Harrison brings a landscape into being with an evocative act of naming, one thing at a time. “The grasses, the rocks, the bluff and its shelves, inland lakes, casuarinas, some sort of mountain ash, I’m not sure which. Then the black-veined opalescent smear of lake.”[34] And so I read his comment to Keys as emphasising what is an essentially romantic idea: that things can not be reduced to their physicality. Yet, as with Merleau-Ponty, that physicality is the place from which all else is evoked: it is, so to speak, what we have, what we are given, in the senses. What makes nature radiant here is not that it is spirit, but rather, that it is flesh, that its glimmer is overwhelming just the same.

The interstices Harrison evokes create a space for whatever might be beyond the physical universe, for a radiant world that makes manifest such spirit as we might locate in it, but such radiance finds its origin in the smallest, most everyday, of things. In a broad sense, this idea might bring him closer to pantheistic or indigenous belief structures than the largely abstracted, transcendent notions of the god we find in most of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and certainly in conversation he expressed a knowledge of, and sensitivity towards, many different modes of spirituality. He complained to me more than once, in that exasperated, charming way he had, about a new house that had been built at the end of his “drive” at Shantipur – that is, at the end of the furrowed trail that leads out from the house, running between the two paddocks of his neighbours. Those responsible for the new house’s construction had stuck it on the ridge point, right on the rock, without any consideration of how it might be integrated with the environment, without recognising that the rock on which it was so plonked was “clearly sacred”.

Some weeks before he died, I went to see him at a hospital in Hornsby. It seemed, at the time, to be one of his better hospital stays. He felt well cared for, felt that they knew what they were doing, knew how to deal with him. As we sat outside on a communal patio that looked out over the hospital’s bushy garden, a priest arrived. The man immediately commenced the rituals of mobile liturgy, focussed on a group of patients nearby, but with an open demeanour of inclusion by which others gathered there might feel a part, should they so wish. There were three in his main congregation, French Polynesians, with wild grey electric wire for hair, and the priest placed the Eucharist in the mouth of each. Le corps et le sang du Christ. I could hear Harrison muttering along. Although I don’t think he had much patience with the exclusions of most organised faiths, his sense of the spiritual was broad and forgiving, and, unsurprisingly, nuanced and complex: he liked the ornate rituals of Catholicism – all those robes and incense. He had great respect for Daoist practice. He admired the sense of custodianship that arrived with the integration of land and spirit in Indigenous belief. Within the British spiritual tradition, he was most drawn to the open-ended searchings of the Quakers, and he cites a Quaker verse during the Poetry Writing Thought seminar[35] he attended some two days before his death. Such spiritual traditions are the closest many of us get to something like ancient understanding in our modern, technologically mediated lives. Just as with his poetics, in his spiritual leanings Harrison was disinterested in “tired old dualisms”. In this tenor of openness, the tracings and insights of the ancient might then be integrated into phenomenological experience: to find the gods in nature, and nature in the gods. Which is to say, I suppose, that despite all that’s written above, I still see Harrison as a spiritualist, a kind of open-hearted, universal gnostic. After the priest had gone, and he had watched me squirm a little in my heathen skin, he turned to me, smiling slightly, and said: “It’s a good thing to do.” “What?” I asked. “Pray?” I knew what he meant, but for some reason I needed him to say it. He nodded, very serious a moment. “Yes.”


[1] William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey“, in Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, New York, 2005, p. 113.

[2] Martin Harrison. Unpublished Email, sent to The Watermark Literary Society. Friday, November 02, 2007. The email was forwarded by The Watermark Literary Society to Robert Adamson, following Harrison’s death. For convenience, I’ll refer to it in what follows as “The Watermark Letter”.

[3] Harrison, “The Watermark Letter”.

[4] Martin Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, in Who Wants to Create Australia?, Halstead, Sydney, 2007. pp. 105-7.

[5] Adam Aitken and Martin Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”, Cordite Poetry Review (1 November 2014), accessed 30 April 2015.

[6] A Guide through the District of the Lakes in The North of England. Longman & Co., Moxon, and Whittaker & Co., London, 1835 [1810], pp. 236, 258.

[7] A Guide, p. 270.

[8] Harrison, “The Watermark Letter”.

[9] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, London, Pimlico, 2000. pp. 1–2.

[10] Harrison’s final appearance at University of Technology Sydney for the Poetics Writing Thought seminar series (with Deborah Bird Rose, on the evening of Thursday 4 September 2014, just two days before his death) is illuminating here. The seminar concerns itself, in part, with the sensory moment that Rose describes as “shimmer” – by which she names the playing of reflected and refracted light in the vision. “Shimmer is literal”, comments Harrison at one point, “I’ve seen it.” Harrison identifies various aspects of this sensory effect, noting the way that it is foregrounded in non-western art, including the New Zealand Māori tradition. One of his points of emphasis is to do with the importance of the visceral in art, and there is a discussion of what he describes as “dimensionality” with regard to phenomenological engagement with country. This session was recorded by Jason Childs, a doctoral candidate of Harrison’s, and, at the time of writing, is still to be posted on the Plumwood Mountain website.

[11] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, Vintage, New York, 1990, p. 128.

[12] “Roads”, in The Distribution of Voice, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, p.57.

[13] Martin Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, in Who Wants to Create Australia?, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2007, p. 101.

[14] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 101.

[15] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 101.

[16] Harrison, “Country and How to Get There”, p. 106.

[17] Aitken and Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”.

[18] Aitken and Harrison, “Adam Aitken Interviews Martin Harrison”.

[19] Martin Harison, Summer, Paper Bark Press, Sydney, 2001, p. 50.

[20] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, in Signs, trans. Richard C. Mcleary, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 41.

[21] Stuart Cooke, “Liminal Narratives”, Jacket 28 (October 2005),, accessed April 30, 2015.

[22] On the matter of Indigenous Law, for instance, Deborah Bird Rose cites a senior Yarralin man, Doug Campbell: “You see that hill over there? Blackfellow Law like that hill. It never changes. Whitefellow law goes this way, that way, all the time changing. Blackfellow Law different. It never changes. Blackfellow Law hard – like a stone, like a hill. The Law is in the ground.” (Dingo Makes Us Human, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000,  p. 56).  This common root of all beings in earthbound Law (which, considered at an atomic level, is quite literally true) only reinforces this point. Rose also cites Hobbles Danayarri: “Everything come up out of ground-language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.” (Dingo Makes Us Human, p.57). Thus although our cultural reference points may differ markedly, our commonality is revealed in our corporeal beings.

[23] Martin Harrison, Wild Bees, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, 2008, p. 181.

[24] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1945, p. 549.

[25] “Lizards”, in The Distribution of Voice, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993, pp. 10-11.

[26] Martin Harrison, “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”, PhD Thesis, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, 2010, p. 8.

[27] Heraclitus, Fragment 119, in Martin Harrison, Summer, p. 7.

[28] Martin Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, in Pathmarks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 239.

[29] For an account of Dwelling and the “enframing” (Gestell) of nature, see in particular Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, London, Routledge, 1993.

[30] Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, p. 266.

[31] Heidegger, “The Letter on Humanism”, p. 269.

[32] There is significant literature positioning Heidegger’s thought within the framework of ecological thinking. See, for instance, Michael E. Zimmerman, “Rethinking the Heidegger Deep Ecology Relationship”, in Environmental Ethics 15,  no. 3 (Fall, 1993), pp. 195–224. For a text that uses Heidegger for “environmental ends”, see Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Picador, London, 2000. An interesting path through Buddhist / Heideggerian negativity and into the deep ecology of Arne Naess (Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, Shambhala, Boston, 1990) can be found in Zimmerman’s essay “Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology”, in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Heidegger, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 240–69.

[33] Conversation between Martin Harrison and Nick Keys, cited in an email exchange between Keys and Sellheim, 16 May, 2015.

[34] Music, Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2005, pages unnumbered.

[35] See note 10, above.

Published: October 2015
Berndt Sellheim

is the author of Beyond the Frame’s Edge (Fourth Estate, 2013) and Saint Vitus Dance (Fourth Estate, forthcoming). He has taught poetry and philosophy at various major Australian universities, including University of Technology Sydney, where he taught with Martin Harrison, and his poetry and critical work have been published internationally. He recently completed his first collection of poems


The Sense of Writing; or Martin Harrison’s Breakfast

by Brenton Lyle

No matter how contemporary or complex the questions of ecology, cognition and sense become, there remains the possibility that writing will only register them theoretically. Which is to say, whether at the level of lexis, or as a classical subject, the writing will remain thoroughly wedded to discourses which continually undermine a fresh thinking. These areas – which to begin with are only suggestive for writing – may never really be interrogated or explored by criticism for the way in which they impact, at every level, the conceptualisation of an act of writing. Here, of course, there is a long list of institutional as well as psychological issues to do with the management and dissemination of writing which have to be considered. But I am talking more specifically about how the act of writing – if it can be so bounded – becomes not just an embedded mode of representing or voicing the world, but a question each time of the whole sense of writing. That is, what traverses the act of writing, or how is a writing immanently traversed by sense; by environing, latent and deep senses which are caught up at every moment with the depth and latency at which language is spoken and inscribed – whether in the earth or on that small piece of prepared earth, the page, or, with its dubious metaphors, the web-site or web-page?

As we couldn’t help but be aware in Australia, a writing of immense sensitivity in this regard has appeared, with an equal provocation, in Martin Harrison. In fact, the scale in which his critical writing – both published and unpublished – deliberates on the written and its relation to contemporary poetic, philosophical, and critical discussions, overwhelms an attempt like this one not to over-look writing, or to reduce its embedded or metaphoric dimensions. Considering, as we are here, the relation between an essentially visual or spatial compulsion in the continued, and problematic, opposition between writing and world, it is enough to suggest that his writing was never constrained by classical models, being taken up partially in sound-studios and experimental radio. All of this work, whether critical, philosophical, or poetic, remains alert to the risk of an over-determination of writing by a solely theoretical or philosophical approach. In other words, he would place poetry and poetics at the centre of any discussion of language or the written. Equally, this would mean not reducing language to discourse or lexis, but considering it rather as inseparable from that otherwise (supposedly) mute body or mute sensing – that projected philosophical zone of non-meaning or completed meaning.

But, of course, we have heard these thoughts before. Why bring up again the Heideggerian or Derridean criticism of a philosophy of the letter or logos – of the word as the sign or substitute for an idea, or eidos? Haven’t we already understood the way in which ecologically inflected accounts of experience and writing no longer bind us to those objectifying distinctions between, just that, experience on the one side and writing on the other? Why continue to drag out these accounts when all the new thinking no longer formalises or systematises the object of experience, or where the excess or multiplicity of systems remains precisely unformulisable in terms of specifically human modes of seeing or understanding? Again the provocation from Harrison would be; do we really have a better sense of the way in which the written mark is not just an analogue for a new form of seeing, but rather a complex metaphorisation in which sense and world converge and diverge? Isn’t the way in which we come to write still determined by classical models of voice, object, and sign? Or, more strongly still, do we think the ecological no longer within a science of the is (i.e. that the world is, must be, ecological) but instead see ecology as itself a metaphor (however vital) which must be considered as only part of a larger and forever un-founded science of writing, or as Derrida says, a grammatology (Derrida 1997, 4)[1]?

The poem Breakfast provides us with the occasion to sketch out, in a provisional way, some of these questions – but “alas”, I feel that this poem leads me inevitably towards his other poems, and not just into its own questioning. Hence it seemed equally inevitable to me to choose only one, and only this one, at the exclusion of perhaps more obvious references in other poems to configurations of mark and attention. This selection is made first of all because this poem, Breakfast, concerns the ethical dimension of an attempt to look, or of the difficulty of locating a place which exists only, in some sense, as the tension of looking, or as a question of perception. But in this way, this poem also seemed inevitable because it could be far too quickly discussed in terms of an interest in phenomena, or the phenomenon. It will be necessary to state directly then that the poet is not merely engaged in an act of phenomenological description, as it is characterised as a question of method in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The poem, as Harrison says, is a way not to “‘do’ discourse” (Harrison 2011) in this sense, nor should it be only or primarily located in relation to philosophical approaches to do with language and thing. It is not just a thought about perception, or a feel for the complex constitution of vision or the senses, that traverses Harrison’s poems. To be sure, there is a mobile heart, a sense of the unfenced moment of attention, which is in flight and not just brought to bear on a resolute object. Further, and without saying anything exceptional, we know that the object, the thing, has never been seen or experienced completely, and that this incompleteness would be the sense (neither the appearance nor the lack) of any sense whatsoever.

But to focus one-sidedly on this account is already to have forgotten how the poems are concerned equally, and in a similar way, with the act of writing, of marking or inscribing. And so we could identify the opening of the poem Breakfast too readily with an in-the-moment dramatization of “dawning” realisation; “Anyone up this early – it’s just after dawn – is going to be overwhelmed by the glimmering of things” (Harrison 2008, 148)[2]. To begin with, however, where in fact would we comfortably situate this speaking? In the voice of the writer describing a moment in-the-event? Describing it in writing? Writing what he is seeing? Or in a fictional speaking which, filmically perhaps, overlays a supposed real (reel) or silent meditation? But already this suggests that any literalisation occurs only as one dimension of the poem’s speaking. That is, we are not experiencing a straightforward mimesis (if there ever was such a thing) – there is instead a sense of the after-the-event nature of a written scripting. In this way the grammatical insertion in this opening will have to suggest, quite quickly, an impossible level of pictorial simultaneity ( … “this early – it’s just after dawn” … ) inseparable from an incompletion at the heart of writing. It will have to be registered complexly as a talking which gives only a version. Or, more strongly, it will suggest that the scripting of the poem, being just that, affects language with a permanent provisionality in which language’s enchaining in this poem is inevitably suggestive of other contexts, other speakings, other poems. Thus as he says later – “A line close to one already in another poem might be” … (151). Or, if we read the second sentence’s suggestive listing: “The grasses, the rocks, the bluff and its shelves, inland hakeas, casuarinas, some sort of mountain ash, I’m not sure which” (148).

But if there is no attention to a realism or spoken mimesis on one side, neither is there a sense in which the attention paid to writing is purely reflexive – an attempt at some banal meta-critical comment on the mediatised nature of all writing. For such an attempt would seek to introduce a naive separation between a pristine moment of perception and an inevitably parasitic technology or technique, where the written dimension could only profane a moment of clear-sighted experience. Such, as we know, and have known for a while now, is not the case. Rather, the separateness of the writing, of any writing, no longer references a vision or an event completed elsewhere – in the mind or in the world. What it brings to attention is its own inaugural gesture, which ties together, each time, the entire sense of attention, body, world. Here we could reference Jean-Luc Nancy’s work, in whose Sense of the World we can read “ […] it is as relation that sense configures itself – it configures the toward that it is (whereas signification figures itself as identity). The tradition of writing is the tradition of relation itself as it is to be opened and tied” (Nancy 1998, 118-19). But one could also trace here its action in the literary figure, or minor literary figure, of description which opens the poem. The critic Angus Fletcher has written interestingly on the way in which description, and in particular listing, traces a kind of manifold or de-structured environing of the subject (Fletcher 2004, 27). In one sense, that would help us to understand that being “overwhelmed” by “the glimmering of things” of the first phrase. But in this account we could miss the degree to which description in the poem is also a sketching of sedimentation and time-lapse. As Harrison has written:

Here in journals, diaries, scientific notebooks, travel notes and essays, the time-lapse is left explicit. Of course, the artifice of disguising artifice is not absent from works such as the English language’s arguably most famous ecological literary work, Walden, nor is it absent from immaculate modern essayistic writing like Barry Lopez’s. But these pieces of writing, like recognised classics such as White’s much earlier Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, use the act of observation over time as an implanted structural element, borrowing from less-than-literary or minor literary formats like the diary, letters or the notebook. They set up the threshold moment at the core of text, treating writing as a kind of residue left over from observation. They usually explore a variety of different, jumbled up ways in which the act of describing can be conceived, for example, note-taking, sampling, mini-narrative, extended observation, lyrical description, exchanges of letters and so on. (Harrison 2013, 7, emphasis mine) [3]

An inscription which treats writing as a residue – in other words, the “threshold moment at the core of the text” is an unstable metaphor for the act of writing, which gives sense to and configures writing. The sedimentation immanent in the mode of the diary is not just a generic attribution, but a necessary metaphor which draws together world, attention, and utterance. One could liken it to the aspectual “seeing as” which underlines a Heideggerian account of vision, in which no intuition or sight could ever be simply “pre-predicative” (Heidegger 2010, 144). But in this instance, what we are saying is that the modal aspects which underlie sensorial configuration in the Heideggerian model also operate at the centre of language. That is to say, writing literally maps[4] the distance – the ontological depth – from which, in the most common instance, Here and There emerge. And it does so just as much as in any “landed” graphic inscription – of Australian Indigenous writing for instance. One could easily read this – almost literally – in the “re-visionary” sense of distance seen across water at the beginning of the poem:

Of course, distance across water can easily

fool: those trees are fifteen kilometres away.

…Something close to that. (The sky’s getting paler and

paler.)                                                                          (148)

Here, and for the rest of the poem, the vision will not become a stable image, seen from one particular view or visual aspect. Instead, its instability is related to the ontological depth which the writing draws, and which the speaking must effectively speak across. A distance across imagined water, then, in this graphic division of speaking three-ways – here, first a description, then an inserted hesitation, and further still a parenthesis. The distance between an unstable observer and trees, Here and There, is drawn by these multiple registers which, themselves, will not adequately describe a conscious arc nor formulate a narrative under which land can take shape. The retreating distance, impossible to fully figure, is the metaphoric dimension which the writing speaks (or writes) across[5] – the world which is here unfixed in aspect or present moment. These senses of the world of the poem cannot be separated from the way in which writing metaphorically and incompletely sets up speaking, gesture, and aspect. Here, Harrison is suggestive in the way he describes a reading which could concentrate on the embedded metaphorical dimension of the work, almost in a cognitivist or Bachelardian sense:

In short, such a reading momentarily fixes on adverbial aspects of place and sight and on the modality or “manner of doing” implicit in the poem. But what is also interesting is how consistent these modal figures are in each poem, almost as if a controlling mode operates deeply in the structuring of poetic experience and distributes tonalities and rhythms of perception across the poem’s language. (Harrison, 2007, 25)

Thus, a mode of writing – the descriptive mode in this instance – will not be best understood as representative of a moment of seeing. Rather, the sense of the act of inscription draws world and sense in its groove or trough. The “artifice”, as Harrison says in the first quote above, is not only an aesthetic or narrowly rhetorical dimension of the poem, but a necessary level of metaphorisation at the heart of any act of writing. The inevitability of introducing the “time-lapse” into this description of the note or diary entry is to do with the almost infinitesimal separateness between reading and writing, a difference which makes the act of composition possible, and which delivers it over to metaphor, to “secondariness”. So it is a writing which is not configured in advance in that space opened up between thing and utterance in the representational model. That space, which is not truly a “space”, is indeed the sense of the gesture of writing itself, which is itself a style of being in the world. And this would make it inevitable that we consider the act of attention, or experience, as not an ideally separable a priori of writing. Here we could note that the habitual reference to an “unspoken” dimension of experience is again neither more nor less than a metaphorical enchaining of utterance, configuring a sense of experience by way of a negatively conceived moment of speechlessness, and thus cannot be properly or entirely conceived outside language. In this sense of configuring writing as a metaphor, writing must be understood in the way it draws attention, in all the senses of this phrase. The intensity and newness of much of Harrison’s poetry comes from this sense of the movement in which writing both draws attention while indicating a distancing or incompletion (both time-filled and empty) at the heart of inscription. As Harrison says elsewhere, “what is at stake here is not external characteristics but how there springs up an incompleteness within a deep structural drive in the project of writing” (149). This would in some sense indicate that writing is only tied and re-tied – it is never fixed, and cannot be absolutely identified with any narrowly conceived practice of inscription.

Hence, the “overwhelming” of the poem’s first line is in some sense the limiting which opens writing as much as any unfocused shimmering. And thus we don’t find here a theory of the object, which brings with it a space of silence and ideality. Instead, the supposedly spoken recount or enumeration of the “scene” will quickly run out on us:

Air’s already dry, resonant with the months of drought

we’ve been having. Overhead, two streaked vapour trails

broaden into hastily brushed scumble – gigantic scribble marks

crazily laddered across vacancy. It’s as if someone’s lent them

there, knowing they’d make an optical illusion, puzzling to

work out. They can’t be Sydney with its curfew. (“Melbourne

to Darwin, Melbourne to Singapore,” I’m thinking.) And over

here: a steep drop down to the fishing-jetty where camp-sites

are wrongly                                                          (148-49)

And it is here that the writing would drop off, mid-sentence. And a new section is introduced, which, we should note, in some sense describes the sweetness of a sound which is not heard, which is in fact forgotten. Here there is a kind of literalisation of the incompleteness of the work. At a deep level, the break in speaking, even in the literal un-voiced speaking involved in silent reading, introduces an attention to sound (and not a supposed “mute” silence) quite similar to a shift in the ear introduced by a voice cutting out on the radio, or a sudden silence in a piece of music, although the reference could be as easily traced to film. Indeed, the way in which the crimson rosellas in the next section, which are “beneath awareness”, quieten “for a moment into typical chitter-chatter” is similar to the way in which the unfinished, perhaps enjambed, earlier text could continue at another level of awareness. But none of this will be stated. Instead, a breaking-off and then this mark, starred, or rather diamonded, at the centre of the page:

it would be a mistake to make too much of this “lozenge” as I see it is called in my word processor, but it is interesting that it doesn’t occur elsewhere, as far as I can see, in the other poems of Wild Bees. So its specificity, as well as its opening, should remind us that the incompleteness at the heart of writing doesn’t reduce it to being only a colourless textuality. Indeed, the ways in which this poem can map, without determining, a whole series of references to do with contemporary digital writing, film and sound installation, is close to the way in which the poem will situate, in a moment, an act of looking, whose ethical dimension springs (to echo Harrison’s earlier comment) from an incompleteness at the core of the senses. In a similar way, the moment in the poem in which kangaroos commit a “vanishing-act” would indicate that incompletion need not refer to any dialectic of “lack” and “fullness”. The moments in the poem are at the same time neither fragments of diary, of narrative, of prose poems, nor are they lyric interludes. Their suggestiveness is in the way they arise, as Harrison says, at the moment between “assemblage” and “disassemblage” (Harrison 2010, 149). We will be able to read this quite directly in the last part of the poem. It begins by describing, once again, the overwhelming vision of “a drowned quarry, abstractly chopped from what’s left of a hillside” (150). I will quote the ending at length:

The truth is: the lake’s being human, humanly made, offers

the viewer a hugeness not that different from transcendence. It

dwarfs any thought of it. Only a dream-fragment can be kept

in mind. Floods roar down gulleys like a front of wild horses.

Natural lakes are (bad rhyme) the sky’s eyes. Was I dreaming

that? When? (A line close to one already in another poem might

be: This lakes’s wind-blackened surface now winks back. Or: It is

and always was a decision, and could be error). Yet the effect’s

deliberate, not causal or dreamlike. It’s light on water. It’s like

a balance, like an equipoise. And then, no, it’s not. A rippling

lake surface, the water can’t conceive that it’s here or that I’m

looking at it or that it has any connection with desertification,

salinity, river silts. For all that, it has to be said that reality

doesn’t arrive as a lake. It arrives as an angel knocking on the

door, pointing out how many things make up a world. Waking

up, what it pointed to was this drowned valley, the yellow-box,

the ash, the calm night-covered hill, the weight of wind and

water. The weight of design and engineering. What it lit up

was a complex moment in perception where to conceive a dam’s

bearing towards human nature requires the same skills as the

resolution of any ethically knife-edge, historically many-sided

issue. In our time, for example, some Israel, some country in

the Middle East. It’s exactly at the point when I realise how

each drop of water, hanging in these hills, is gathering to

fruition that I realise, too, how far the night’s behind me and

I’m fully awake.                                                    (151-52)

Here the text cannot quite arrive at a fixed propositional structure. The effect of the lake’s human scale is both dreamlike and not, and then, further, not not dream-like. The italics above, aslant as always, would also indicate another moment at which the sounding of the poem cannot adequately be registered, in which it is neither heard nor half-heard, as if the complex acoustic moment of imaging the lake must continually intrude – homonymically, mnemonically, rhythmically – on the poem’s propositional structure. Clearly, this effect is also to do with waking, with the half-sensed, almost forgotten dreams of last night providing another unquiet surface, another lake. But this is to say, the distance across which waking – the sense of being “fully awake” – must emerge, is entirely caught up with, or drawn by, the metaphoric dimensions of the poem’s utterance. Here, in fact, I would say that this distance is likened to the incredibly complex figure of “reality” which occurs in the unthinkable registration of the man-made lake’s impact, in ecological terms, but in terms, indeed, of the level at which places could be said to exist. What emerges is at one level an equipoise – a need to balance the act of looking on an ethical knife-edge, an edge and an ethics that emerges precisely because the vision can never be completed – “the water can’t conceive that it’s here or that I’m looking at it”. In fact, the attempt to have seen and known the thing (the lake), once and for all, is directly related to the ecological crisis which is referenced in the poem. But more than a representative “capturing” of a phenomenal instance, the reason that this level of incompletion is achieved in the poem is to do with the metaphorical distance which the writing itself describes. In the same sense as the diary entry, the distance across which a speaking or writing must travel is directly related to the way we make the mark, or place the accent or graphie. In this way, in the end, the waking is not just a figure for clear-sited revelation. Instead, in the quotidian manner of the title of the poem, where we would be forced to consider Martin Harrison’s Breakfast (in its necessary double-inflection), the poem is indeed the distance across which a complex moment of wakefulness can first be glimpsed.

It is clear that this essay can only begin to sketch out links which remain more substantially discussed in that, as I have already said, overwhelming body of critical work which Harrison has written. In one sense, this piece hopes only to contribute to a renewed interest in that material. Hopefully this will bring with it a more complex thinking of the relation between mark and attention, mark and world, as well as a poetry which is not just ecologically aware but is engaged at the level at which writing immanently maps unstable and non-theoretical (or hierarchical) senses of the world. Also, it is sad to say, that the incompleteness which is registered here in that name “Harrison”, a figure of space which marks out an uncrossable river in the last name, the last name as an institution commonplace – is also the transference of a poet, friend and mentor to an impossible distance, the same impossible distance across which his voice would now have to be heard. But nothing requires me to complete this dialogue – that is, to seal it off, or to make an absolute account of it. In the same way, neither is this account aiming to render a completed analysis of the poem. Being just a sketch, nor am I obliged to complete the


[1] C.f. also on this point, Harrison’s comments in his thesis “On Composition’ (2010, 107), in which he engages directly with Of Grammatology, and a science of writing without a unified object – neither in consciousness, in experience, nor in classical graphie. One continues to hope that this thesis will be published soon, after legal matters allow the publisher to release the book, which, to my knowledge, will appear under the same title as for the thesis given here.

[2] Hereafter quotes from the poem will be accompanied only by page number.

[3] Once again, I quote what might be considered a marginal comment from this essay, The Act of Writing and The Act of Attention – all I can do is to refer the reader there, where the themes which I take up in this piece are obviously at issue for the writer.

[4] This will become a persistent term in the writer’s own “mapping” of crossovers between cognitive science, phenomenology, and non-classical or non-Aristotelian understandings of metaphor. See, once again, “On Composition”, for instance: “This view assumes that metaphoricity reaches into and is reached by embodied senses of the world. It may be argued that the concept of metaphoricity is asked to do too much work in cognitive theory, and in particular that it is asked to do what neuroscience cannot yet fully demonstrate about the mapping of perceptual responses on to conceptual domains” (Harrison 2010, 14).

[5] C.f. Heidegger’s essay “Language” in which the speaking of the poem is imagined as a call, calling “Into the distance in which what is called remains, still absent” (Heidegger 2001, 196).


Derrida, J. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hokins Univeristy Press, 1997.

Fletcher, A. A New Theory for American Poetry; Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2004.

Harrison, M. Who Wants to Create Australia? Broadway, NSW: Halstead Press, 2007.

—. Wild Bees; New and Selected Poems. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press 2008.

—. “On Composition: Five Studies in the Philosophy of Writing”Thesis. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney, 2010.

—. “Interview with Martin Harrison”, Poetry International Rotterdam, 2011, /19744/Interview-with-Martin-Harrison/en (accessed April 30, 2015)

—. “The Act of Writing and the Act of Attention”, TEXT Special Issue 20, ed. Martin Harrison, Deborah Bird Rose, Lorraine Shannon and Kim Satchell (October 2013), Harrison.pdf (accessed April 30, 2015)

Heidegger, M. Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2001.

—. Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: University of New York State Press, 2010.

Nancy, J-L. The Sense of the World, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,  1998.

Published: September 2015
Brenton Lyle

is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney. His candidature was supervised by Martin Harrison, to whose work, teaching and friendship he remains very much indebted.